review: unchanging love

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[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-UNCHANGING.html]

UNCHANGING LOVE

by Romulus Linney
Based on story by Anton Chekhov
Directed by Gillian Kelly
The Artistic Home
1420 West Irving Park Road / (773) 404-1100 / www.theartistichome.org
Through August 20, 2006

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
July 14, 2006

“Unchanging Love” at The Artistic Home is an Appalachian, musically nuanced, classically structured tragedy based on a Chekhov short story. No really, stay with me. Playwright Romulus Linney and director Gillian Kelly have crafted believable American characters set in a particular American historical context that illustrate classic, universal themes and provide a moving theatrical experience. Much as Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes” examines the underside of a small town family’s power and how it strives to hold onto it, this lovely play provides dichotomies of good and evil, individual choice and moral imperatives, organized religion versus personal piety, through an array of characters and situations that entrance and disturb.

The story begins and resolves with two very different renditions of the hymn “Unchanging Love” resonating as if from different universes. As the audience enters, the members of the sharecropper Musgrove family composed of father Elmer (Victor Doylinda), Annie (Justine Serino), and daughter Judy (Betsy Elizabeth Ann McKnight) are singing together, talking quietly together, in the center of the stage. To our left a kitchen, to our right a simple country store, upstage is the porch of a home, and our family regales us center stage. Soon they move toward the porch area and it is clear that they have been asked to perform for the 75th birthday celebration of the more well-to-do Pitman family’s patriarch Benjamin (Gary Houston). In this context, they are asked to sing “Unchanging Love” for Ben as his mother’s favorite hymn. All is joyous and celebratory and unified.

Clearly, any dramatic playwright worth his salt will not leave us at the pure and joyous moment, and Linney does not disappoint. The story explores a wide range of moral compromise through several family members and community members: daughter-law Leena (Tera Dunlap); Leena’s husband, simple son Avery (Peter Fitzsimmons); attorney and political son Shelby (George Dickson); a character from Leena’s past named Crutch (Mark Dillon), and another schemer named Oats (Jason Ahlstrom). Some characters fight for power, some fight for recognition by a parent, some fight for money, some fight because that’s how they were raised. Against these dynamics we have Ben’s third wife Barbara (Evelyn Kelley), who is a tempered voice of conscience among the jackals in Ben’s life; and primarily the Musgrove family and especially Judy, who provide their own form of earnest belief — in themselves, in life’s possibilities, in a deity, but not in formal organized religion or especially its representatives. Our cast of apparently simple people tells us a surprisingly complicated story.

Director Gillian Kelly weaves music artfully throughout this stunning piece of theater, quickly establishing the Musgrove family characters at the play’s opening (loving, connected), commenting on the action, and providing a respite from the growing crescendo of greedy maneuvering. As the piece proceeds, “simple” Judy is at times featured, in inter-scene bridge moments, “in one”, singing of love or loss or heartache. This Judy is more articulate in song than dialogue through most of the piece, and this fits perfectly, preparing us for some final scenes when she finds her voice to chilling effect and our final version of “Unchanging Love”. The director’s background in opera and musical theatre enriches this production immeasurably. Choreography by Melissa Zarembaduring the wedding reception scene and perhaps more subtly placed locations, is energetic and delightful.

This acting ensemble is mesmerizing. The women provide the moral core and the moral challenges. Betsy Elizabeth Ann McKnight as Judy is as luminous as she was in Artistic Home’s “Clash by Night”. Tera Dunlap’s Leena is nuanced and strong and believable. Evelyn Kelly’s Barbara is warm and pragmatic and striving in her own way. Justine Seroino as Judy’s mother Annie is sweet and simple and haunting (many times evoking Tovah Feldshuh in a strong supportive role). And the men are equally special, led by Gary Houston’s occasionally bellowing patriarch Ben, who has survived the deaths of two wives and three daughters and, survivor that he is, proclaims “I reinvent this family, that’s what I do”. He barrels forward, living in the present (“a dollar today”).

The set design by Kurt Boetcher is efficient and evocative; lights by Amanda Clegg Lyon gracefully move us from interiors to intimate solo singing spots; costumes by Kathleen Cowell marvelously illustrate subtle class distinctions; sound by James Murray is surprisingly delicate and evokes worlds beyond the small performance space (e.g. the sounds of a wedding reception beyond the walls of the theatre).

Power, defeat, and redemption. You will be enriched and surprised by this production.

© Martha Wade Steketee (July 14, 2006)

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