Where: Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park Rd.
When: through Dec. 9
By ANNE SPISELMAN
The world premiere of “Southern Gothic” has been such a huge hit for the Windy City Playhouse that it already has been extended several times. It’s easy to see why.
A prime example of trendy “immersive” theater, Leslie Liautaud’s juicy soap-opera-for-the-stage, savvily directed by David H. Bell, taps into our voyeuristic impulses, inviting us to be “flies on the wall” and move from room to room of Scott Davis’ impeccable period set to watch several scandalous stories of substance abuse, spousal abuse, infidelity, and political corruption unfold.
The time is June 30, 1961. The place: the home of Beau (Michael McKeough) and Ellie (Sarah Grant) Coutier in Ashford, Georgia. The occasion is a 40th birthday party for Suzanne Wellington (Brianna Borger), Ellie’s sister-in-law. Three couples are guests: Suzanne and her husband, Jackson (Matt Maxwell), who is an attorney and Ellie’s brother; married couple Charles (Victor Holstein) and Lauren (Ali Burch) Lyon, and Tucker Alsworth (Peter Ash) and his girlfriend, Cassie Smith (Kierra Bunch).
And then there’s us, the uninvited guests—28 max each performance. We get to peer in the windows from the front and yard of the frame house before being ushered inside to settle down on cushioned banquettes in the living room and dining room or low benches in the seafoam green kitchen with its
Kenmore stove, Formica dinette set, and lots of delightful accouterments. Or we can wander, nibbling snacks set out for the invited guests (as long as we don’t touch or talk to them) and sipping a cocktail or two passed out at appropriate times.
The party doesn’t go smoothly from the start. The caterers call to say they’ve been delayed by a traffic accident, and Ellie and Beau have to whip up food quickly, setting out popcorn, chips, candies and, my favorite, Satines and Spam. Alcohol is in plentiful supply, however, and Ellie’s concern that Beau, who has been in rehab, will relapse, is well-founded: By the end of the evening, virtually everyone will imbibe to excess. The Coutiers also are preoccupied by the fact that money they depend on has gone missing from the family business.
Quiet, low-key Jackson and excitable Suzanne are the first to arrive, and she almost immediately tears down the “Happy 40th” banner Beau has hung over the mantle and tosses it into the outdoor grill. Charles, a politician aiming for a senate seat, argues in the yard with Lauren, his trophy wife and a senator’s daughter, before even ringing the doorbell. Probably the most hateful character, he starts by putting down her attire, even though she’s elegantly dressed (apropos costumes by Elsa Hiltner), and continues insulting and humiliating her all night, even hitting her in one instance. Last on the scene is Tucker, who surprises—or more accurately shocks—the others by bringing Cassie, a journalist who gets compared to Lena Horne, as Beau compounds her embarrassment by playing a Harry Belafonte record. Interracial couples are illegal in Georgia at this time, and subtle and not-so-suble racism exacerbates the night’s escalating tensions.
Even more important in this plot-heavy melodrama are the love affairs and their back stories. The downside of the style of staging is that crucial information is revealed in conversations in different rooms that often are taking place simultaneously, so it’s impossible to know everything that’s happening. Our party invitation, a.k.a., the program, says it’s okay not to hear it all, but I found this as frustrating as a three-ring circus, or more so.
From what I could glean, Tucker had a relationship with Lauren in the past, and Jackson may have, too. Ellie has been sleeping with Charles and has become pregnant, something she hadn’t been able to do with her husband Beau. When Lauren finds out, she wants the baby, because she hasn’t been able to have children since an “incident” years ago that likely involved Tucker. Increasingly boozy Suzanne battles with simmering Jackson and almost everyone else, and all her bluster finally gives way to sobby vulnerability.
We eventually also find out what happened to the missing money, a torrid tale of political intrigue that arguably seems tame by contemporary standards. Not surprisingly, Charles is the culprit (along with an unseen character), and his venality and drunkenness afford Lauren the opportunity to exact a delicious revenge. They also give journalist Cassie the chance at a great story, a chance she eagerly seizes over Tucker’s objections.
The cast has changed considerably since “Southern Gothic” opened last winter, but the acting is first-rate. Holstein’s nasty Charles and Borger’s flamboyant Suzanne are the most over-the-top, but everyone brings canny touches to their roles. The problem for me was I didn’t really care much about any of the characters, so trying to keep track of as much as possible ultimately became just a game.
One tip: If you want to see the most while moving the least, sit at the end of the living room banquette that looks into the dining room. From there, you can also see the bathroom and the yard and will only miss the activity in the kitchen.