Tucked into the Greenhouse’s downstairs studio space, The Comrades’ production of IN THE WAKE pulls off the near impossible. Lisa Kron’s play premiered in 2010 as a personal-political snapshot of the ‘naughts, beginning with the contested 2000 presidential election and ending five years later, around the time of Hurricane Katrina. More than one character onstage declares this as the worst of all possible times. In the muck-filled context of today’s political scene, the production manages to make Kron’s dialogue seem more prescient than naive.
The Comrades, an ensemble-based company founded less than two years ago, gives IN THE WAKE the kind of skilled production that maintains Chicago’s reputation as a city of small stages. In the hands of director Alex Mallory, it’s both nuanced and straightforward. News clips are projected onto the back of the set – a tiny apartment in New York’s East Village – that keep us connected to the events that spark so much of the play’s heated debate. We see Al Gore’s concession speech, Guiliani’s address after 9/11, Senator Hillary Clinton’s vote to invade Iraq and other key moments. No stage tech wizardry, just effective support for the script.
Idealism and hypocrisy fuel IN THE WAKE
At the heart of the play is the liberal motor-mouth Ellen (Rose Sengenberger). A freelance writer, she wears out her listeners as she assesses America’s current state of being. This includes her doting boyfriend Danny (Mike Newquist), a middle school teacher, plus his sister Kayla (Adrienne Matzen) and her partner Laurie (Erin O’Brien) who live two floors below. Later it includes Amy (Alison Plott), a filmmaker with whom Ellen begins a passionate out-of-town affair while continuing to live with Danny.
The one person who cuts through Ellen’s relentless commentary is Judy (Kelli Walker). The tough 56-year-old comes from a poor, dysfunctional Kentucky family and has spent many years as an aid worker in Africa.
She has no patience for Ellen’s untested idealism or her hypocrisy in keeping both besotted Amy and patient Daniel in her thrall. When Judy takes custody of her biracial 14-year-old niece Tessa (Samantha Newcomb), she unwittingly provides proof of America’s barrier between haves and have-nots.
The Comrades show their acting chops
For this viewer, IN THE WAKE goes on a full 30 minutes too long. It’s frustrating to see Danny waiting out Ellen’s affair with Amy when he so obviously craves a solid relationship. Ellen and Danny discuss dinner plans with Kayla and Laurie a few too many times after we get the message about their comfy bond. Ellen’s periodic addresses to the audience about the difficulty in detecting blind spots in her own life become tiresome.
Scene placement, too, seems out of whack at times. Towards the end of the show, Judy launches into an argument with Ellen about fairness in American society. Seven year ago, Kron’s message may have been a shout. Now it screams with truth. “For some people, there is no more potential here,” Judy tells Ellen. It’s an important moment, eloquently and intelligently written. But with the personal stakes of the story so high, it’s an awkward time to stop for a lengthy societal critique.
Yet Walker and Sengenberger keep the tension high, a testament to their acting chops. The rest of the cast rises to this level and are reason enough to see IN THE WAKE. In lesser hands, the play might fall into self-indulgence. But these actors stay on the mark, pulling us inside their characters throughout.
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning, Emmy-nominated playwright, journalist and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre.