Where: Goodman Theatre Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through Nov. 18
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Helene, the fictional Danish woman at the center of the world premiere of Dael Orlandersmith’s “Lady in Denmark” would fit perfectly into a theme-related collection of characters like the playwright’s “Stoop Stories” or “Until the Flood” (both performed at Goodman), but her story doesn’t have a strong enough narrative arc or sense of urgency to sustain a 90-minute solo show, despite Linda Gehringer’s fine performance.
Orlandersmith teases out the play from an anecdote she found in “Lady Sings the Blues,” the 1956 autobiography of Billie Holiday. Arriving at the Copenhagen Airport in 1954 on her first European tour, Lady Day met a physician and his 12-year-old daughter, adoring fans, as were many Danes. The doctor saw that the jazz singer had a cold and insisted she come to his family home, where he gave her medicine and Danish food. He also invited her to come live with them anytime, and if she had, she might not have died at 44.
In love with the idea of something that never would have happened in the United States, Orlandersmith tried to track down the real family about seven years ago, when she started working on the piece that appeared last year as part of Goodman’s New Stages Festival. She failed to find them, so instead she imagines how that little girl might have turned out.
We meet Helene, an unconventional, outspoken woman now in her late seventies, in the comfortable, book-filled living/dining room of her home in Chicago’s Andersonville, once a Scandinavian neighborhood. She is cleaning up after a party and explains that it was an 80th birthday celebration for her beloved husband Lars, although he died unexpectedly three weeks earlier of cancer. Describing the party and her interactions with her two grand nephews, she enjoys a cigarette and revels in her love of smoky, boozy rooms filled with jazz. She puts on a vinyl recording of Billie Holiday, her favorite and Lars’, too.
Helene puts on a brave face, but her loneliness and grief over her loss lead her to reflect on the past, from her childhood in Copenhagen during and just after World War II to courtship and life with Lars, who met her by singing “Them There Eyes.” Her account isn’t strictly chronological. At its core are two main events, one horrific, the other joyful. The tragedy is her rape as an adolescent by a family friend – she tells us Holiday also was raped as a child – and the highlight is meeting her idol at the 1954 concert in Copenhagen. Orlandersmith tweaks the details, so that the occasion is her father’s birthday, and the family is taken backstage after Lady Day’s performance, but the visit and meal at the family home remain, along with the invitation to come live there anytime.
Helene finishes by grappling with the silence in her home and wondering how she is going to go on alone. This should be very moving, but somehow it isn’t. Gehringer’s Helene is interesting and admirable but remains rather distant, partly because of Chay Yew’s direction. There’s no compelling reason why we should care about her. The piece seems to drag at times and becomes a bit repetitive; it easily could be trimmed by 15 or 20 minutes.
The quasi stream-of-consciousness approach also diminishes the dramatic tension. Helene talks about her sister, Hannah, and her sister’s husband, Peter, who died four years ago, as well as her childhood best friend, who’s also dead, but these loved ones come and go from the narrative, united at the end only by her wish that all the dearly departed would come back to her.
Perhaps most disappointing is Yew’s failure to use Billie Holiday’s music to best advantage. I don’t know if there were issues obtaining the rights or problems with the sound design by Mikhail Fiksel, but on opening night, all we got were snippets of songs, some of them inaudible. There also were some projections by Stephan Mazurek, but they were onto part of the set covered with framed paintings and were impossible to decipher.
On the other hand, Andrew Boyce’s set of a Prairie School-influenced apartment is impeccable, as is the lighting design by Lee Fiskness. And Christine Pascual’s costume suits Helene perfectly.
I usually find Orlandersmith’s plays more gripping than I expect them to be. With “Lady in Denmark,” she seems to be trying to explore a fascinating subject – the way Europeans embraced 20th-century giants of American jazz while Americans didn’t – but her focus oddly is diluted by confining the story to one woman’s reminiscences.