Play: The Lady from Dubuque
Group: Muddy Waters Theatre
Venue: Kranzberg Art Center, Big Brothers Big Sisters Building, 501 North Grand
Dates: June 19, 20, 21, 26, 27, 28
Tickets: $15-$20; contact 314-799-8399 or www.muddywaterstheatre.com
Story: Sam and Jo are hosting an intimate party in their well-appointed home that includes, among other items, a Jasper Johns print and a well-stocked bar. They’ve been drinking heartily through the night with their friends, a couple named Edgar and Lucinda and another twosome named Fred and Carol. Something is odd, however, because Jo is increasingly hostile to her husband and their guests, dispersing stinging bon mots during their “Twenty Questions” parlor game while also offering disparaging remarks about her companions to the audience.
It’s “your nice, average, desperate evening,” says one of them, but the sad reality is that Jo is dying a slow, painful death from an unnamed illness that has resulted in her being “mean in a different way.” The evening ends badly as Jo drives her friends from her home with her savage tongue, but the oddity of the situation has just begun: As Sam returns to the living room after taking Jo to bed, he meets two strangers, an attractive woman named Elizabeth who claims to be Jo’s mother and her sharply dressed companion, Oscar. Sam is familiar with Jo’s estranged mom, and Elizabeth looks nothing like her. Neither does Jo’s New Jersey mother hail from Iowa as Elizabeth describes herself. Then who, exactly, is the lady from Dubuque, and what does she want?
Highlights: This St. Louis premiere of Edward Albee’s 1980 drama in Muddy Waters’ season of “Mothers and Other Strangers” offers a rare and welcome opportunity to see a lesser-known work of one of America’s greatest playwrights. More than that, however, it’s a provocative and fascinating presentation under director Cameron Ulrich’s precise and meticulous guidance. Albee’s signature writing style clearly is in evidence in the sophisticated sarcasm and savagery of these middle-class characters, revealing yet again his uncomfortable knack for stripping away the veneer of civilization, and Ulrich successfully distills Albee’s biting prose.
A Broadway flop when it premiered, The Lady from Dubuque nonetheless is an artistic gem that provides a rich and bountiful treasure of theatrical possibilities that are well realized in this handsome presentation. Sarah Cannon and Kirsten Wilder each delivers a masterful performance as the two characters who dominate the proceedings, one in each act. Cannon, as the terminally ill Jo, adroitly manages to balance our sympathies in painfully tender moments with her caustic, indiscriminate and cruel assaults on her husband and friends. Wilder personifies the typical Albee character, genteel and proper while also snobbishly superior to her surroundings and impervious to other forces.
Other Info: The supporting characters offer varying degrees of performance fodder for their players. Robert Mitchell takes full advantage of Oscar’s well-etched role, providing a bounty of the evening’s laughs as he cleverly plays against the reaction of Sam and his friends to a black man in their presence, albeit a nattily attired gentleman of means. Joshua Thomas blends Sam’s despair over his wife’s condition with his mounting anger at the diffident intruders and his ambivalence toward his friends.
Those friends serve primarily as straw players to be pilloried by Albee and his leading ladies, but Emily Baker shines as Carol, a self-proclaimed “dumb brunette” who has dyed her naturally blonde hair but wavers between vapid love for the brutish Fred and genuine concern for Sam against his intruders. Patty Ulrich is touching as the amiable but slow-witted and vulnerable Lucinda, G.P. Hunsaker provides some compassionate moments as Sam’s best but dubious friend Edgar and Todd Pieper brings out the curious venality of Fred, which bubbles to the surface under pressure.
There’s solid technical support by Cameron Ulrich, who contributes the simply adorned living room set, Maureen Hanratty’s lighting that is most pronounced in the climactic scene and Alexandra Scibetta’s costumes, highlighted by the elegant threads adorning Elizabeth and Oscar. While relatively unknown, The Lady from Dubuque provides a sobering and rewarding glimpse at the canvas of Albee’s calculated brush strokes about life and death, and most worthy of your attention.
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.