Clash by Night

By Clifford Odets
Directed by John Mossman
The Artistic Home
1420 West Irving Park Road
Chicago, Illinois 60614
Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
March 31, 2006

Stunning and Simple CLASH Provides Electric Theatre

  • “They’re not happy those movie people, none of them”
  • ”I know when I’m in a cold storage atmosphere, so give me a base on balls here.”
  • “You strike me as one who needs a new suit or a love affair but he don’t know which.”
  • “I don’t enjoy my life, I enjoy only the dream of it.”
  • “Young or old you’ll love a man who gives you confidence.”
  • “You’re only in this world on a rain check, the way I see it.”

CLASH BY NIGHT ran for six weeks when it opened in New York December 27, 1941, resonating with (or challenged by) the events that had transpired 20 days before in Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu, Hawaii.  Clifford Odets’ story of family, loyalty, friendship and commitment among people who survive on the edge of the American dream is brought to beautiful life in the current production at Chicago’s Artistic Home. This is an American drama that should be produced more often.  And this particular production not only does the work justice but serves to remind us all why we go to theatre in the first place: to be moved, to share a story, to be taken on a journey, and to enjoy images long after one has left the theatre.

This drama in two acts and seven scenes involving several couples, extended family, and the small Staten Island town in which they all dwell.  Mae Wilenski (quietly powerful Kate Tummelson) is bored with her life as a mother and wife of earnest and simple construction worker Jerry (stolid Jason Ahlstrom).  When Jerry’s friend Earl Pfeiffer (quicksilver and edgy Tim Patrick Miller) comes to board with Mae and Jerry, Mae is at first challenged.  We are puzzled at first by her immediate dislike for Earl, but then we see that they recognize something profound in each other.  These are two hard-bitten people who are “passing” in conventional lives – the married mother with a young child and the boarding movie projectionist whose wife has left him for another man.  When they reach for each other, we in fact root for them.  Jerry, encouraged by his uncle and his father, responds with physical force bringing this human-scale tragedy to its inevitable conclusion.

In the course of this family story we meet another young couple, friends of Mae’s and Jerry’s, who are struggling with whether or not to get married themselves.  Romantic and beautiful and fragile Peggy (Betsy Elizabeth Ann McKnight) has been engaged for several years to Joe (Jayce Ryan).  Peggy has several lovely scenes in which she reveals to Joe her fear of what might not be possible in married life, but finally overcomes this fear of commitment in the face of the social and political change.  Joe says to her at one point, as she continues to struggle to accept his wedding proposal: “You don’t make a point when you say you’re afraid.  We’re all afraid.” This couple represents hope through tears.

The balance of the cast is powerful and solid.  Even the smallest roles demonstrate commitment to detail that bolsters the entire experience.  For example (and this is just one of many such examples), Matt Roben as Tom, a fellow partier at a Staten Island bar, sweetly evokes a stumbling drunk, who almost but never quite falls down.  At the end of scene and as he and his fellow actors change the set for the following scene, Roben remains simply and charmingly in character, stumbling upstage down the set’s central hall.

Direction by John Mossman, light design by Maggie Fullilove-Nugent, and scenic design by Christopher Ash create magic in the small performance space.  Small moments that combine the skills of all three production artists are numerous but two can be highlighted.  The first act in this production ends with Mae standing in the hallway of her simple bungalow, in her bathrobe, knocking on Earl’s bedroom door and calling his name, then opening the door through which the only light in the theatre pours, signaling the beginning of their affair.  The final moments of the play have Mae approaching the locked projection booth door, fearing what she might find at the other side, turning the young Peggy and Joe away to protect them, knocking again, now calling her husband Jerry’s name.  The blinking light, as if through the projectionist’s peephole of the film that is being shown in the theatre below, flickers then finally goes out.  stunning.

Special credit must be paid to Aaron Krister Johnson, who is credited with original music and sound design that enlivens this spectacular experience. Original spare jazzy fragments evoke the feel of the Modern Jazz Quartet but is uniquely his own,  Music of the era of the play is utilized as referenced by the characters.  The choreography of the music design, an understated sound track in fact, is masterfully performed by those behind the scenes as well as the performers on stage.

This play is of its time, full of loving and delightful period details in a production that remains spare and minimalist, almost impossibly creating a sense of space in this storefront black box space.  In its scope, detail, sound, and emotion, this production represents what takes us out to the theater in the first place.  In a space as intimate as those providing the best cabaret performances, the member of this troupe speak with us and provide quiet moments of delight, horror, sorrow, and  earned moments of explosive anger.  This production must be seen.

Highly Recommended

© Martha Wade Steketee (March 31, 2006)

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