In the Chicago of the 1870s, the fashionable drawing rooms of Prairie Avenue were frequently host to spiritualists, mediums and charlatans, often folks playing all three of those roles at once. With lowered gas lights and a bit of hocus-pocus and table magic, the bereaved could be persuaded that their dearly departed floated once again amongst them.
After all, people died young during that era in Chicago. And The Great Fire — coincidentally, the subject of the current show at the Lookingglass Theatre — was very much seared into the civic memory.
That's the milieu for "
It all sounds very juicy and, indeed, there are some zesty bits of writing, a few rich and engaging performances (especially from the excellent Delia Baseman and Kate Nawrocki, as a pair of sisterly tricksters, in too deep) and some quite elaborate on-stage magic from designer Brett Schneider, involving disappearances, levitations and the like.
But the fundamental overall problem with Jimmy McDermott's production is that it allows an unnecessarily mannered Victorian style to compromise crucial believability. The long-departed ladies and gentlemen of the
This feels especially acute, I think, because the show dips its toes in the realm of actual magic. The moment you bring classic illusions into play, notions of credibility inevitably rush to the forefront. Alas, this production is also afflicted by broad characterizations and campy acting (not to mention some characters who seem undeveloped and thus unnecessary). This is very much a temptation of the genre — McDermott is playing with notions of Victorian melodrama — but also the opposite of what the show needs to really work.
Lighting is also a constant problem here. Characters keep talking about the dark, but everything seems too brightly lit for the tricks to actually be tricking anyone.
Once the show moves away from the over-ripe seances and into the more credibly played backstory and subsequent meltdown of the spiritualists, things works better. But the show remains strangely removed and lacking the kind of detail that would allow tension to rise. One leaves mildly entertained, but neither fully beguiled by the spooky season nor with useful new insights into the insecurities of early Chicagoans.
When: Through Nov. 6
Where: Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes