Where: Bailiwick Chicago at Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
When: through April 5
By ANNE SPISELMAN
“Dessa Rose,” the 2005 musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (“Ragtime,” “Once on This Island,” “Seussical!”), is appealing and annoying, and Bailiwick Chicago’s heartfelt production at Victory Gardens’ upstairs theater emphasizes both characteristics.
Based on Sherley Anne Williams’ novel, the show is set in the pre-Civil War Deep South (in 1847 to be precise) and brings together two based-on-fact stories. One focuses on Dessa Rose (Sydney Charles), a pregnant teenage slave condemned to hang for leading an uprising. The other is about Ruth (Harmony France), a newly married southern belle abandoned on a rural farm by her wastrel gambler husband.
The result of this merger is a tribute to female bonding heralded by the opening anthem “We Are Descended” (“from a long, strong line of women”), which is fervently sung by the ensemble of 12. It offers a sample of the beautiful voices, both choral and solo, corralled by director Lili-Anne Brown and of Flaherty’s lush score that draws on folk tunes, hymns, blues, ragtime and more.
The songs, in fact, sustain the two-and-a-half-hour-long evening. They include Dessa’s urgent “Something of My Own” and Ruth’s melancholy “At the Glen,” as well as “White Milk and Red Blood,” movingly sung by Jasondra Johnson as Dorcas, Ruth’s beloved “Mammy;” the humorous “Ladies,” a duet for Dorcas and Ruth’s mother (Brigitte Ditmars), and the love song, “In the Bend of My Arm,” performed by Dessa Rose, her first love Kaine (Jaymes Osbourne), Ruth and Nathan (Jayson “JC” Brooks), one of several escaped slaves given refuge by Ruth, who falls in love with her and she with him.
The biggest problem is Ahrens’ muddled book, which tries to pack in too much of the novel, lacks narrative drive and takes too long getting to the point — the second-act meeting between Dessa Rose and Ruth, who gives her shelter, and their relationship, which evolves from mistrust to mutual respect, friendship and love. To make matters more confusing, the events are framed as flashbacks — and flashbacks-within-flashbacks — narrated presumably by much older versions of the women (and others), though the age distinctions are pretty much ignored by Brown and her cast.
For most of the first act, we have no idea why we’re watching alternating scenes of the two women’s back stories. While Ruth’s lessons on becoming a proper young lady of the period are mildly amusing as well as cliched, Dessa Rose’s experiences are a predictable litany of the abuses of slavery interspersed with indictments of these ills. She and Kaine fall in love, she gets pregnant and he’s murdered by their master when he objects to having his beloved banjo taken. She’s then beaten, branded and sold off, then escapes and frees her fellow slaves after her new master rapes her. This leads to the rebellion, the moniker “Devil Woman,” and her imprisonment awaiting hanging, which is scheduled to take place as soon as her baby is born.
The account of Dessa Rose’s tribulations isn’t linear, however. She tells much of the tale to Nehemiah (David Schlumpf), a white journalist who is writing a book about slave rebellions and visits her in prison, only to become obsessed with her. Then he disappears for a long stretch of the script— and shows up for the climax and denouement as an unhinged stalker determined to have her recaptured and punished.
Other aspects of the plot are equally improbable. When Ruth, Dessa Rose and the others decide to leave the farm, they resort to a dangerous “scheme” previously used by Nathan and a white man. Ruth poses as a plantation owner and sells her “slaves,” who promptly escape and rejoin her, whereupon they move on to the next auction and repeat the process — quickly amassing $30,000. Or at least we assume that not much time is passing, because Dessa Rose and Ruth both are nursing infants from the time they meet until their bittersweet final parting. If not needed at their mothers’ breasts to make a point, the babes are plunked into a basket or disappear offstage.
Of course, these liberties are part of the presentational storytelling style of the piece, and it’s probably curmudgeonly to be too critical. The same can be said about the pedagogical impulses and occasional sentimental excesses, which thankfully are lessened by the winning lead performances.
As for the technical elements, Megan Truscott’s rough-hewn scenic design is harmless, but some of Samantha C. Jones’ costumes — especially for Ruth — are so unflattering, they’re unforgivable even on a budget.
This shouldn’t deter you from seeing “Dessa Rose,” as long as you don’t mind the rambling pace and preachy tone. Some of the music is thoroughly engaging, though at times it could be edgier, which arguably would suit the subject better.