Story: Charlie Johnson is taking a break from shopping with his wife Bonnie. He orders a coffee and some cookies at a shop to relieve his mid-afternoon hunger. As he dunks a cookie in his coffee cup, his daughter-in-law, Patricia, asks him if he is having a “Madeline moment.”
Charlie has no idea what she means, so the aspiring novelist informs her less-than-intellectual father-in-law that it is a phrase from French writer Marcel Proust’s saga, Remembrance of Things Past. Right then and there, Charlie decides to read said work so that he can discuss it with Patricia at their Christmas gathering next year.
Charlie is unaware that the novel is seven volumes long until he orders a copy. It’s dense and it’s thick in its writing, to Charlie’s way of thinking, but he’s not one to give up easily. As he plods through the early 20th century writer’s tome, Charlie learns about Proust and the audience finds out a good deal about the 75-year-old reader.
Everyone has a story. Proust had his and now we’re learning Charlie’s, and there’s more to each than at first meets the eye.
Highlights: Joe Hanrahan shines in this one-character, one-act play beautifully written by Amy Crider and handsomely staged by The Midnight Company.
Other Info: Crider’s work debuted earlier this year in Chicago, so artistic director Hanrahan and his Midnight Company are among the first to produce it anywhere. It’s a disarmingly affecting tale, as warm as a pair of slippers Charlie might wear when perusing Proust’s renowned work.
Chuck Winning’s scenic design is lean but telling, with a chair, lamp and side table for Charlie as an anchor for his ruminations as he slowly paces the room. The back curtain is filled with a number of small, framed pieces, including a photo of the celebrated French writer.
Charlie is a Midwestern man through and through, a modern-day Harry Truman who lives by his father’s credo to always be “doin’ the right thing.” He learned that important lesson as a child, we find out, a 7-year-old who went along with his older playmates’ harassment of a ‘queer,’ a term unfamiliar to young Charlie.
His father’s harsh response to the lad's actions softened only a week later when Charlie brought home an ‘A,’ which led to the advice that has guided his life ever since.
While Charlie stumbles along from book to book, he questions what exactly Proust himself ever did himself write this novel. No marriage, no children, no obvious means of employment, just ramblings about aristocracy, homosexuality and other topics that don’t pay the bills. Still, he shrugs his shoulders and continues forward.
Crider’s writing is effective and affecting as she paints a portrait of an Everyman who recalls, mostly without strong opinion, the circumstances which have shaped his quiet life. His late wife Katherine, e.g., aspired to a college education and a fulfilling career, but likely settled on Charlie and anonymity after a teen tragedy.
Their only child, daughter Georgann, always has seemed a bit distant to Charlie. Only a neighbor’s drunken revelation opens Charlie’s eyes and a renewed effort on his part to connect with her. He tells us also about second wife Bonnie, her son Billy and his ‘intellectual’ wife Patricia, and we learn an amusing surprise about Patricia as well in Charlie’s gentle conversations.
Director Sarah Lynne Holt coaxes a warm, witty and revealing performance from Hanrahan as the earnest Charlie, as the accomplished actor basks in the warmth of Tony Anselmo’s soft lighting. Hanrahan wears his interpretation of the well-meaning if ‘un-hip’ Charlie like a favorite sweater, bringing several moments of poignancy in the course of the drama’s 75 minutes.
His Charlie is careful, methodical and precise in his thinking. You may not approve of Charlie or people like him because he isn’t flashy or loud or aggressive enough for contemporary tastes.
Attention must be paid, however, to this disarmingly perceptive man who has always tried to just be “doin’ the right thing.” Who knows, he may give you as much to think about as Proust.
Play: Charlie Johnson Reads All of Proust
Group: The Midnight Company
Venue: Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand at Olive
Dates: June 13, 14, 15
Tickets: $20; contact 531-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Todd Davis