Directed by Ensemble Member Steve Scott
Featuring Eclipse ensemble member Sally Eames with guest artists Jeannie Affelder, Larry Baldacci, Jess Berry, Phil Higgins, Ted Hoerl, James Houton, and Jack Miggins.
America's regional theaters are catching up with Alan Ayckbourn, and it's not hard to see why. Yes, virtually all of his 77 plays are uproariously funny comedies—but most of them are also deeply melancholy, at times joltingly so. Do an Ayckbourn and you get crowd-pleasing laughs and bonus points for seriousness. It makes good sense, then, that Eclipse Theatre Company, which specializes in three-show seasons devoted to the work of a single playwright, should be giving him the deluxe treatment this year, and that the first show of the season, "Woman in Mind," is one of the many plays by Mr. Ayckbourn in which comedy and tragedy are so tightly coiled that you can't pull them apart.
As the lights go up, you see a middle-age woman (Sally Eames) being treated by a mild-mannered doctor (Larry Baldacci) who is speaking to her not in English but in gibberish ("Pie squeaking jinglish cow"), making it impossible for her to understand what he is saying. Susan, we learn, just received an accidental blow to the head that has left her temporarily disoriented. Soon, though, she snaps back into focus, and the members of her cheerful, loving family, who appear to have stepped out of a tennis-anyone garden-party comedy, arrive on the scene and start fawning over her. If you didn't know any better, you might well suspect that you were in for a boringly conventional evening. But Mr. Ayckbourn likes nothing better than to deal from the bottom of the deck, and little is as it seems in "Woman in Mind," least of all Susan's goody-goody husband, daughter and son-in-law-to-be. For not only do all three of them turn out to be figments of her increasingly disordered imagination, but Susan's real family is…well, not nearly so nice. Pretty awful, in fact.
What follows is a hard-edged comedy that is simultaneously funny and horrific. It is also extraordinarily well performed, especially by Ms. Eames, who plays her part not as a tour de force of comic ingenuity but as a stingingly true-to-life study of a woman who can no longer bear the pain of her disappointments. Stockard Channing played Susan when "Woman in Mind" was first produced in America by the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1987, and I can pay Ms. Eames no higher compliment than to say that you won't wish you were seeing Ms. Channing instead. The rest of the cast is identically convincing, and Steve Scott's is-she-crazy-or-not staging keeps you on your toes all the way to the end.
Gardens can be dangerous places for women. Consider Eve, tricked by a snake. And then there's Susan, undone by a rake.
The heroine of Alan Ayckbourn's "Woman in Mind" has concussed herself in the most cliched way possible by stepping on the wrong side of a garden implement. Like Samuel Beckett's Krapp slipping on the banana peel, Susan's undignified pratfall is symptomatic of a larger inability to control fate — or to accept responsibility for making a better life.
But where Beckett's decrepit memoirist has his past and its illusions about the great days yet to come, Susan has a series of hallucinations of the alternate life she wishes she had. In director Steve Scott's sparkling but suitably unsettling staging of Ayckbourn's 1985 classic for Eclipse Theatre Company, one wonders whether insanity — temporary or not — is preferable to the everyday madness of crushing disappointment and loneliness.
As the hapless (and also pratfall-prone) local doctor, Bill (Larry Baldacci) tends to Susan (Sally Eames) at the play's outset, she engages in a series of pithy fantasy conversations with her winsome daughter, Lucy (Jess Berry), her rakish brother, Tony (Phil Higgins) and her debonair husband, Andy (James Houton). She is more than a little peeved that the doc doesn't share her belief in the champagne-swilling, tennis-playing bon vivants that surround her, and that he insists on providing a different narrative about her family life.
When we meet the people with whom Susan actually lives, it's clear why the hallucinations look so good, and why she tells the doctor "You're describing someplace I wouldn't choose to live, even in my wildest nightmares." Her real husband, Gerald (Ted Hoerl), is a stuffy Anglican vicar devoted to writing a history of the parish. Her martyred sister-in-law, Muriel (Jeannie Affelder), ruins every meal she cooks and ruminates upon the chances of ghostly visitations from her dead husband. And Susan's son, Rick (Jack Miggins), has just returned from a two-year stint with a cult that requires him not to speak directly to his parents. But as even her imaginary family takes on dark undertones, we wonder whether Susan's mental state was in disarray long before the rake smacked her on the pate.
Ayckbourn long ago outstripped the early comparisons to Neil Simon — though, like Simon, revivals of his work often seem consigned to community theaters rather than major regional outfits this side of the pond. But the structure of "Woman in Mind" marked a major departure in style from his earlier farces and acidic portraits of marriage on the rocks.
Though it feels less formally radical than perhaps it did in the mid-1980s (television's "United States of Tara" most recently limned the same woman-with-dissociative-identity-disorder territory), the intimate and rather surprisingly warmhearted Eclipse production shows it still works as a portrait of a woman who has fallen between the generational gap — too young to be a sturdy survivor of the Depression and World War II, and too old (or complacent) to have joined forces with feminism's quest for self-actualization.
Eames, who never leaves the stage, unfolds a lovely and modulated performance as Susan, even as the character faces increasing befuddlement and fear. Affelder and Baldacci deliver little comic gems as semioutsiders to the Susan-Gerald-Rick triangle of resentments. Their attempts to provide comfort — Muriel with horrible food, Bill with awkward attempts to humor Susan's imaginary family by making bunnies out of handkerchiefs — backfire on a regular basis. We simultaneously laugh and squirm in recognition at the narrow confines of Susan's real life. By the end, "Woman in Mind" is a requiem for a dream life that keeps too many of us stranded in emotional deserts masquerading as gardens.
There's a fine stage production for any person who has ever had a fleeting moment of emotion, prompting the thought: "What if I had a different family?"
And, if you've never had such a thought cross your mind, this play is still a great way for both discussion and entertainment.
"Woman in Mind" written by Alan Ayckbourn, debuted in 1985 in London and then a New York premiere in 1988 with actress Stockard Channing in the lead.
For this Chicago run, excellently produced by Eclipse Theatre Company at Athenaeum Theatre now until May 19, it's the talented and believable Sally Eames in the lead role of Susan, who finds herself in an "Alice in Wonderland" sort of false family reality.
This intimate theater experience transports the audience to a lush green grass lawn, where the story unfolds. (The scenic design by Chris Corwin captures the landscape picture-perfect, and inspired me to even later touch the thick faux grass when I walked past the stage.)
The play opens with Susan having been knocked unconscious in her yard and struggling to regain her thoughts and composure, as she is tended to by a concerned doctor played by Larry Baldacci.
What purposely remains unclear to all, both audience and the characters, is the true backstory for Susan. As the scenes share more and more details, Susan finds confusion about whether her life is a bleak tale or a bounty of privleged bliss.
Is she in an unhappy marriage to hubby Gerald, played by Ted Hoeri, with the disinterest of their son Rick, played by Jack Miggins and unhappy confrontation with her live-in sister-in-law Muriel (played by Jeannie Affelder) and her horrid cooking?
Or is her true life one of a perfect scenario with a handsome and loving husband named Andy, played by charming James Houton and a caring and confiding daughter as played by Jess Berry and the silly antics of her dashing brother Tony, played by Theatre at the Center actor favorite Phil Higgins, and his ever present tennis whites and champagne bucket?
While her dual life scenarios are contrasted by "affluent versus moderate" means, the descriptions are wonderfully vivid by the playwright, allowing the audience to also visualize rose gardens, a lake and tennis courts just across the lawn, all features of an English country estate, which might or might not exist, depending on the state of lead character Susan's mind at the moment.
Directed with precision by Eclipse Theatre Company ensemble member Steve Scott, by the second act, it's easy to cheer for Susan to find her true station in life.
Actress Sally Eames has the gift of sincerity and it's easy for any audience member to balance on her every word for this convincing performance for this 2-hour "Jeff Recommended" production.
Last summer, Eclipse Theatre Company saved my sanity. I reviewed their production of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah Wilderness! four days after receiving devastating news. It was at once light and intelligent, and nobody died: just what I needed. Eclipse is the only Midwestern company to focus on one playwright each season, and 2013 is the year of British comic poet Sir Alan Ayckbourn. Season opener Woman in Mind is the most challenging of genres – dark comedy – and once again Eclipse made me laugh, and made me think.
Susan (Sally Eames) is tending to her garden like a good housewife when a rake to the head turns everything topsy-turvy. Her handsome husband (James Houton), rakish brother (Phil Higgins) and charming daughter (Jess Berry) attend to her with champagne and affection – yet her doctor (Larry Baldacci) has no idea who these people are. Susan’s real life is considerably more depressing than her cheerful hallucinations, with a bumbling minister spouse (Ted Hoerl), daffy sister-in-law (Jeannie Affelder) and estranged son (Jack Miggins). But what happens when fantasy and reality collide? Will Susan soldier on through a boring, frustrating existence or submit to the fantasy she never knew she had until that fateful blow?
Ayckbourn’s text is tightly paced, verbally sharp and mentally provocative. Woman in Mind is a masterful blend of talk and action, and of fluffy dreams and dull routines. Dark comedy is an extremely subtle, difficult art – many have tried, and few accomplish. Woman in Mind could be subtitled, “This is How You Do It.” The role of Susan is an actress’ dream: venting her frustrating while slugging wine one moment, rolling around in mad ecstasy the next. It’s her show, but each of the supporting characters have quirks that are distinctive without being obnoxious. Even the utopian bubbly-swilling family is nuttier than it first appears.
Woman in Mind’s production team makes the smart choice to keep effects simple and let the story shine. Chris Corwin’s set is a rolling carpet of bright green Astroturf, a small trellis and a wooden shed – spare, yet symbolic. John Kelly’s lighting contrasts between stark and warm, and (though it’s a bit overblown at times) Toy Delorio’s sound recalls the gravity of Susan’s mental decline, lest we forget in our laughter.
Eclipse attracts some of Chicago’s best and brightest, with a bevy of guest artists and ensemble member Eames at the helm. Her Susan is a showstopper – equal parts angst and anger, with an Emma Thompson-esque lilt. Hoerl and Affelder provide comic relief as befuddled siblings, and Baldacci has some sweet, wistful moments as Susan’s good-hearted physician. Berry is chirpy and gorgeous, everyone’s fantasy child, while Miggins is a realistic slacker. Houton and Higgins are perfectly preppy, wielding champagne flutes and hunting weapons with aplomb, while never missing a barb or a beat.