Play: Ladyhouse Blues
Group: Act Inc.
Venue: Fontbonne University Fine Arts Building, Wydown at Big Bend
Dates: June 26, 27
Tickets: $18 and $20; contact 314-725-9108 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Story: It’s a hot August night in 1919, as Liz Madden and her four surviving daughters go about their business in their tiny south St. Louis flat. Widow Liz is awaiting the eventual return of her only son from World War I, along with dozens of other mothers in their neighborhood. Because the men have not yet returned from the war (which ended in 1918), the neighborhood is filled with what are termed “ladyhouses.”
Liz is a strong-willed woman who refuses to sell the family farm that was tilled by her late husband, and she’s also survived the death of one daughter. Her pregnant daughter Dot, home for a visit, is a former model married to a New York socialite. Another married daughter, Helen, is stricken with tuberculosis and confined more or less to her mother’s home. Daughter Terry is a waitress and fiery union organizer, while youngest daughter Eylie has promised a young neighbor of Greek heritage that she’ll marry him and move with him soon to California.
Highlights: Playwright and actor Kevin O’Morrison was born in St. Louis in 1916. His play, Ladyhouse Blues, is based on his own mother’s family and was first performed in 1976. His web site states that for two years Ladyhouse Blues was “the most performed play in America.” Oddly enough, Act Inc.’s production notes indicate that this is most likely the first local performance of the work.
Ladyhouse Blues is the type of nugget that Act Inc. has famously found and featured throughout its 29-year history. Beyond the attraction of local references, O’Morrison’s two-act drama is very well written, poignant and affecting as he carefully delineates the hopes and emotions of five headstrong women in an era of social change.
Other Info: Steve Callahan’s direction is loving and meticulous, with care and attention afforded the five talented actresses who comprise the show’s ensemble. The production moves at a pleasingly consistent pace and even makes its theater-in-the-round staging palatable.
Tim Poertner’s set is a realistic-looking portrait of a modest home kitchen of the era, with some nice period pieces provided by props person Lynn Rathbone, and it’s nicely complemented by Michael Sullivan’s soft lighting. Jane Sullivan and Marilyn Brooking offer the fine period costumes, including Liz’s confining corset that adds to the show’s humor. Chuck Lavazzi’s sound design nicely incorporates Scott Joplin music, a few traditional pieces sung in beautiful a cappella style by the cast and even the rants of a local preacher (Callahan) and the wails of street vendors, including O’Morrison himself.
Kim Furlow anchors the gifted cast with a sturdy portrayal of Liz. She conveys the lady’s social ignorance and stubbornness as well as her grit and determination and, most especially, powerful love for her children. Emily Strembicki is dazzling as Terry, the daughter determined to change the world, and Carli Miller is terrific throughout as the impetuous and romantic Eylie. Allison Courtney Hoppe and Valerie Jean Waters, after struggling a bit in the first act, deliver powerful performances in the strong second stanza as the two married daughters who both are trying to reconcile themselves to their own unique situations.
The only minor quibbles are quizzical references by O’Morrison to Kerry Patch and Dodier Street, both located not in south St. Louis but north. What a glorious gift his play is, though, to local theater patrons.
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.