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Hypocrites carries O'Neill classic
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff

Ian Westerfer, left,J. David Moeller and Audrey Francis form the love triangle in The Hypocrites’ production of “Desire Under the Elms.”

 

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Published: 10/5/2007 2:26 AM

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A revival of a 20th century classic, a Chicago premiere and a world premiere are among the recent openings.

'Desire Under the Elms'

The Hypocrites don't do melodrama as a rule. But in light of director Geoff Button's excellent revival of Eugene O'Neill's "Desire Under the Elms," featuring a terrific ensemble, including the superb Audrey Francis, they might want to reconsider.

Inspired by Greek tragedy (it echoes "Oedipus Rex" and "Medea") and set in mid-19th-century New England, "Desire Under the Elms" is an aching portrait of loneliness and desperation.

The slightly pungent but not unpleasant smell of mulch greets you as you enter Chopin Theatre's basement studio. It covers the floor and most of Tracy Otwell's rough-hewn set, invoking the harshness of the unforgiving land as well as its beauty, which is reflected in the panoramic projections and Jared Moore's lush, "purty" lighting.

In less sensitive hands, "Desire" might be just another potboiler. But Button uncovers its pathos, while still maintaining the sexual tension (eloquently expressed by Francis and Ian Westerfer). This play is about more than the affair between the conflicted Eben (a boyish Westerfer very good as the restless romantic) and the desperate, weary Abby (an honest, passionate performance by Francis, an actress to watch) who has recently married the much-older Ephraim Cabot, Eben's grasping, hard-bitten father (a flinty, menacing J. David Moeller). It's about people searching for peace and sanctuary, a place they can call their own, and someone they can love who will love them back.

Rounding out the cast is Gregory Hardigan and Vince Teninty, who supply the comic relief as Eben's oafish older brothers Simeon and Peter.

The space presents some staging problems which results in some bad sightlines (snagging a seat in the first couple of rows should help). Also, some awkward stage business involving Eben and Abby during Cabot's musings at the end of Act One don't make a lot of sense. But that's an anomaly in this highly charged, thoughtfully rendered revival.

'Fiction'

Does truth matter if a tale is well-told? The best-selling author who passed off fictionalized memoirs as fact would argue no. The self-described "one-trick pony" novelist in Steven Dietz's "Fiction" who insists "the lies begin when we lift the pen," would agree. Readers deceived by a writer substituting fiction for truth would not.

Those are among the issues Dietz touches (lightly) upon in his witty, time-shifting play whose Chicago premiere comes courtesy of Remy Bumppo's expertly cast, nicely paced production directed by Nick Sandys.

The story -- which contains several plot twists (one of which Dietz telegraphs early in the first act) -- centers on the Watermans: well-educated, well-matched, writers Linda (Annabel Armour) and Michael (David Darlow). She teaches a college writing course, after subsequent novels failed to equal her critically acclaimed debut. He writes best-sellers Hollywood turns into blockbusters. Upon learning Linda has only weeks to live, the couple swap journals, which leads to unsettling revelations about Michael's affair with Abby (Linda Gillum in the underwritten role of muse) that threaten the marriage.

To reveal more would spoil the play. Suffice it to say that not everything Michael and Linda write is true. But their stories raise some provocative issues. Unfortunately, Dietz fails to address them fully, and that's where "Fiction" falls short.

'The Defiant Muse'

Nicholas Patricca's "The Defiant Muse" makes a pretty good history lesson. Unfortunately, the play about Mexico's celebrated 17th-century poet and scholar Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, who goes from the Mexican court to a cloistered nunnery to pursue her art and studies free from church censure, makes for less-than-engrossing theater. This despite its compelling, proto-feminist protagonist played by the imminently watchable Lisa Tejero.

Part of the problem rests with the disjointed, often confounding play, which juxtaposes scenes from Sor Juana's life; with scenes from a play about Don Juan with scenes in which she crosses literal and metaphoric swords with the famed libertine (played by Dan Kenney) who Patricca inexplicably casts as her alter ego. It's a dubious conceit considering they have little in common besides an independent spirit.

That said, Victory Gardens' production directed by Andrea J. Dymond, looks gorgeous thanks to Keith Pitts' grand set, with lighting by Charles Cooper and beautiful period costumes by Judith Lundberg. But the play -- the world premiere of which Monday elicited a polite but uninspired response from the audience -- never comes together as a unified whole.