Great actresses sent to extremes in First Look plays

Written By By HEDY WEISS Theater Critic Posted: 08/10/2014, 03:32pm

Anyone searching for a thematic subtitle for the three plays in this summer’s ninth annual First Look Repertory of New Works at the Steppenwolf Garage might consider this: Women on the Verge (or right over the edge) of a Nervous Breakdown. (Apologies to filmmaker Pedro Almodovar.)

At the center of each play — Martyna Majok’s “Ironbound,” Joshua Conkel’s “Okay, Bye” and Tanya Saracho’s “Hushabye” — are women in various states of extreme crisis. This may be a good omen for the excellent actresses called on to play many leading roles, but such extremity doesn’t always make for a great play.

The best of the trio is Majok’s “Ironbound,” directed by Daniella Topol (Recommended; 90 minutes with no intermission). In no small part its success is due to the presence of Lusia Strus, a veteran Chicago actress who now lives in New York, and whose return here is a potent reminder of her unique talent, voice and sensuality.

Strus plays Darja, a Polish immigrant whose unhappy life in New Jersey — where she has worked in a factory and as a domestic, had several complicated relationships with men and raised a son — is chronicled from 1992 (when she is 18) to 2014. Darja is a tough cookie, a survivor who has never earned much money and made some bad decisions along the way.

When we first see her it is 2014, and she is about to dump Tommy (Paul D’Addario), the needy postal worker who has been her live-in boyfriend for some years, but has been cheating on her. The volatile push-pull and bargaining that goes on between these two are the story’s bookends. In between, we see Darja with her first “big love,” Max (a spot-on Billy Fenderson), a fellow immigrant and aspiring musician who she decides not to follow to Chicago, fearing he is too much of a dreamer. Fast-forward to 2007: She is jobless and homeless and has been battered by the factory boss she married years earlier for security. While sleeping “raw” she is befriended by Vic (Nate Santana), a high school kid in hipster garb who sells drugs. (The scene is sweet but far from convincing.)

In Conkel’s “Okay, Bye,” directed by Margot Bordelon (Somewhat Recommended; 95 minutes with no intermisson), two seemingly very different women in their early thirties meet at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Boston and realize they were high school schoolmates. Jenny (the wonderful Brenda Barrie, who can move seamlesly from darkly neurotic to acerbically comic) was the traditionally pretty girl who married well (if not happily), moved to California and dabbled (unsuccessfully) in acting. Meg (the intriguing, hugely watchable Lara Phillips, another Chicago actress now based in New York) was always more troubled and rebellious, and is now homeless.

Both women are lonely and lost. When Meg reluctantly agrees to come for a shower and stay for “a slumber party” at Jenny’s apartment, the women’s bonding is overshadowed by Meg’s desire to commit suicide. And what follows stretches belief on too many levels.

Saracho’s “Hushabye,” directed by Yasen Peyankov (Somewhat Recommended; 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission), also features an attempted suicide.

At the play’s tension-filled center is a black bourgeois-bohemian family living in Chicago. Erika (the excellent McKenzie Chin), an artist who suffered a major emotional trauma (plus substance abuse issues) in the wake of a car accident that killed both her parents, has been cared for by her take-charge, very pregnant older sister, Cynthia (Tamberla Perry), and Cynthia’s controlling husband, Brian (James T. Alfred). But now she has moved into an apartment of her own and hopes to straighten out her life. And she gets good vibes from her gay cousin, Terrence (Desmond Gray), a doctoral student, and from her eccentric and artistic landlord, Jackson (Shane Kenyon in a most winning turn), who clearly likes her.

In lieu of a spoiler alert here let it just be said that not everything is as it seems. And along with the bickering and consumer satire, there is deception and guilt. There also is healing, though you might find yourself worrying about bankruptcy in this family’s future, too.

Loud applause for designer Chelsea M. Warre who devised all three of First Look’s distinctive sets.

Email: hweiss@suntimes.com

Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic

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