As a first show for a new, Equity-affiliated theater in Chicago, Mike Leigh's "Ecstasy" is one tough assignment. We can deduce that the Cole Theatre ("'Victory of the People' is our rally cry") is up for a challenge. That bodes well for the future.
But first, the present. First seen in 1979, Leigh's play is about a group of young, aimless, working-class friends living in London in a stew of poverty, existential haze and sexual confusion. The ironically titled piece was in many ways a prototype for Leigh's subsequent career as a film director. He established his way of working: social realism developed through improvisation. He found the actors who would collaborate with him for years, the likes of Stephen Rea and Jim Broadbent. And he revealed his gift for building character-based dramatic works around trapped, mostly miserable characters, people whose quotidian days spent among depressing jobs and angry friends cannot fulfill the yearnings of their souls.
So this fine British play is about all of that, even though none of the characters really has access to those feelings, let alone the skills or the words to articulate them. Hence, this darn thing is really hard to do well, even for actors who have worked together for years, let alone a group forming for the first time. Add in an array of accents (although the play is set in London, the characters come from all over Britain and Ireland), an experimental second act that is twice as long as the first and, for those of us with long memories, the shadow of an unforgettable Chicago production during the 1996-97 season from the now defunct Roadworks Productions, and you have one tough biscuit on which director Shade Murray and his cast of actors inside the rented space at A Red Orchid Theater must bite.
How do they do? It's not a bad start. The production values are excellent, with Grant Sabin's one-room set making deft use of A Red Orchid's eclectic intimacy. My heart thumped with recognition a few times. No holds are barred. And my overall sense is that the people who make up the Cole Theatre are fine and honest actors, even if they are not all entirely right for these roles.
Take, for example, Maura Kidwell, the classy, detailed and vulnerable actress playing the lead role of Jean, the protagonist of the play whose bed-sit existence (she works at the local garage) is pockmarked by many drunken nights either swilling gin or becoming involved with the wrong kind of man. Kidwell's performance is rich and complex, but you never quite get the sense of, well, degradation for which Leigh was aiming. This is typified by the first scene; the show starts with Jean and her handsome but married lover, Roy (Joel Reitsma), lying naked in bed after having just made love. Murray paints an elegant picture of post-coital sensuality. It reminds you of a scene from "Alfie" or some other swinging London bit of movie sex, whereas it really needs to land closer to one of Lena Dunham's more squalid and self-loathing assignations in HBO's "Girls." It's poignant but also a tad too pretty, too retro-desirable, too wistful.
Murray is on surer territory when it comes to the comedy in the piece. Jean's shoplifting pal, Dawn, is amusingly if broadly played by Michaela Petro, and Dawn's relationship with hubbie Mick (Boyd Harris) is lively and energetic, even if their marriage is not entirely believable. That marriage, dysfunctional but comforting, is contrasted with Jean's record of picking the wrong guy, eschewing nice chaps like Len (Layne Manzer) who would care for her. Manzer, a fine actor, is poignant, too, especially in the moving last 10 minutes of the show, but you still understand a bit too readily why it was Roy who was in her bed, rather than Len, whose character is pitched just a tad broadly for him to fully make his case.
"Ecstasy" is a seemingly simple drama that captures what it was like to be young and poor in the Britain of the late 1970s, perhaps better than any other play. If you have never seen this early Leigh creation, you can do so here in the company of skilled actors who don't fully find the working-class identities of these lost souls, but who embrace their situation with empathy and passion.
When: Through Sept 28
Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes