Perchance it was too much lying around on the beach this summer. Maybe the exiting humidity is blessed relief. Or maybe there's the sense that these are serious times requiring serious artistic responses. Whatever the reason, Chicago actors have been on fire this past week.
Let's start with Dan Waller, currently appearing as Oliver in "The Pitmen Painters" at TimeLine Theatre (through Dec. 4; timelinetheatre.com). Lee Hall's play is about a group of northern English miners in the 1930s who sign up for an art class as a form of self-improvement, only to see their work become famous. The core moment in this moving play comes when a wealthy patron offers Oliver a stipend to paint. If he takes it, he won't have to go down the mine anymore.
If you've ever been faced with that kind of crossroads, you'll recognize the combination of energy and fear that flows though Waller's body. The scene — which Waller performs brilliantly in director BJ Jones' production — is all about Oliver's conflicted loyalties. Should he grab his personal moment? Or should he stay connected to his community? He shows you all of that. But there's more. When someone offers you something, a nagging voice in the back of your head invariably questions why they would make such an offer. To put that more bluntly, Oliver is terrified his transformation will come at the cost of making him a kept man. Someone who owes someone, not somebody who chips out his own future. You sure see the fear in his eyes, just like you see the hunger.
Since I saw Waller's extraordinary work at the weekend, I've been musing on how most of the unforgettable theatrical moments I've witnessed have been terrifying points of decision. They require the most complexity of an actor.
The extraordinary acting in Sean Graney's production of "Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses" (staged by The Hypocrites at Chopin Theatre through Oct. 23; the-hypocrites.com) comes in triplicate. This four-hour marathon of all seven surviving Sophoclean dramas is a heavily conceptualized and contemporary affair, wherein the plays are set in a hospital room and actors sing Bruce Springsteen songs. But whatever a director may be doing, any Sophocles show is toast without actresses who can play his famously incendiary woman.
Remarkable, Graney has found not one such woman but three: Erin Barlow, Tien Doman and Lindsey Gavel. And that's just as well, because Graney has to cover the likes of Antigone, Ismene, Elektra and Jocasta. One killer performance would not be enough. It's hard to say which of these women is the best; they all power through the texts with such relentless force and vocal power that you find yourself sitting bolt upright whenever they show up. These young, non-Equity performers are not familiar names yet. But if their collective work here does not attract attention, then Oedipus should be able to marry his mom with impunity.
Clifford Odets' "Waiting for Lefty," now being staged by American Blues Theater (through Oct. 2 at Biograph; americanbluestheater.com), is an episodic polemic and one of those dimly remembered works that is not the play that many people think they know. But Kimberly Senior's production contains a number of beautiful portraits of Americans under duress. There are some formidable actresses in this production, including Mechelle Moe and Cheryl Graeff, but the performance that stands out is from Gwendolyn Whiteside, the actress playing Florrie.
The scene is simple, really: A young woman wants to be with the young man she loves, but a combination of prejudice and economic circumstance conspire against her. Whiteside doesn't make the mistake of just showing us her character's traumas — although her sadness comes across with total clarity — she also reveals her inherent hope. That's what makes this scene work so beautifully. You see a young woman who, in different circumstances, could achieve almost anything and make America a kinder place. People think this show is all about “Strike! Strike! Strike!” But Whiteside shows us what lies beneath its passions: the cost of not allowing an ordinary young woman to rise to her full potential.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times