When the twenty-eight guests start creeping around the hedges, they’re already silent, even though none of the house’s residents are visible yet. Eventually, a man emerges to do some last-minute vacuuming and a woman checks on something in the kitchen, but by then, the unexpected guests are peering in through the windows. When the couple re-enter dressed for the evening, the twenty-eight are lurking all throughout the house, judging, summarizing, and anticipating disaster.
Southern Gothic, the new play now at the Windy City Playhouse, is an unusually plot-driven work of immersive theatre. Most of a house (scenic design by Scott Davis) is constructed inside the playing space, and the twenty-eight audience members move around it as they please, picking up different bits of conversation from the eight actors. If you missed something, you missed it, but the overall story isn’t hard to follow. Each audience member will come away with a slightly different story, but each will share an experience that is indeed unsettlingly voyeuristic.
A Not-So-Friendly Gathering
By the house’s décor, we are in the 1960s, and we later learn the setting is Georgia. The resident couple are Beau (Michael McKeogh) and Ellie (Sarah Grant). She comes from money; his recovery from alcoholism is an on-going process, and there’s tension there. There’s also tension because the catering truck crashed, leaving them with nothing to eat but crackers with spam. But most troubling of all, a large sum of money has gone missing from their company. Today is the fortieth birthday of Ellie’s sister-in-law, Suzanne (Brianna Borger), and they’re celebrating for the sake of Ellie’s brother, Jackson (Paul Fagen), who is also Beau’s business partner. Suzanne is known for her cutting remarks and not being the kind of person to take turning forty well, but Jackson’s still cool. They hope.
In fact, they have a lot to celebrate. Their mutual friend, Charles Lyon (Brian McCaskill), is expected to be appointed to a vacant U.S. Senate seat, and he’s all but guaranteed Jackson a place on his staff. But then the last friend, liberal and guiltily rich Tucker (Peter Ash), shows up, with a new girlfriend, Cassie (Ariel Richardson). She’s a reporter, of a sort; only Charles’s wife, Lauren (Christine Mayland Perkins), is gauche enough to admit that it’s also a problem that she’s black. Her presence suddenly makes the matter of the missing money something much more delicate to tip-toe around, but the fact she has unwittingly intruded on several love triangles means people won’t be acting delicately for much longer.
Lack of Omniscience Gets Audience More Involved
Southern Gothic’s most distinctive trait is certainly its presentation. Seeing a play like this onstage, with everything laid bare to the audience, is one thing. Choosing what to focus on at the expense of other information triggers a huge shift in how everything is processed. A few times this reviewer was the only person in the room when a scene was going on, and that’s probably true of every audience member. Occasionally a violent flare-up or a broken glass will draw everybody’s attention. The startling feeling is quite authentic, as is the confusion from never getting to know exactly what just happened. Putting us in the position of the characters causes us to pick up on certain things, like how Jackson is the person most likely to listen in on someone else’s conversation or how nervous Ellie is with Charles.
Windy City Playhouse Makes Something Distinctive
Also putting us in the characters’ shoes are the small cocktails served throughout the night by the stagehands. (There’s nothing stopping you from helping yourself to a spam cracker, if you really want one, either.) This show is a world premiere written by Leslie Liautaud and produced by the Windy City Playhouse’s head, Amy Rubenstein, and artistic associate Carl Menninger. The theatre is known for producing a wide variety of work in a swanky setting, and in this new play, the bar and black box are integral to the show. But the comfort only increases the tension—we feel more as if we’re doing something wrong by silently observing and skulking around for the best view when it seems someone is about to get beaten. We’re also more aware of being vulnerable and creating vulnerability in others. Director David H. Bell has done an outstanding job of keeping everything coherent, and each of the actors are fully immersed in their roles. In this sort of set-up, they’ve got a lot to feed off.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
About the Author: Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis has lived in Chicago since 2014 when he started writing articles about theatre, opera, and dance for a number of review websites. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of modernist dramatic literature and criticism. While there, he interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham developing concepts for new dance pieces. His professional work includes developing the original jazz performance piece The Blues Ain’t a Color with Denise LaGrassa, which played at Theater Wit. He has also written promotional materials for theatre companies including Silk Road Rising.
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