‘The Commons of Pensacola’ homes in on shattered family

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Linda Kimbrough (left) plays Judith, and Lusia Strus is her daughter, Becca, in Amanda Peet’s play “The Commons of Pensacola,” at Northlight Theatre. | MICHAEL BROSILOW

“THE COMMONS OF PENSACOLA”

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

± Through Oct. 19

± Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie

± Tickets: $25 – $78

± Info: (847) 673-6300; http://www.northlight.org

± Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Some might describe “The Commons of Pensacola” — the tremendously accomplished first play written by actress Amanda Peet, now receiving a deliciously fierce Midwest premiere at Northlight Theatre — as a tale of survival. Others might call it a picture of the afterlife, or a study in collateral damage, guilt, denial and our uniquely 21st century form of tabloid narcissism. A few might even call it an American tragedy.

In fact, it is all these things, and more. Peet has managed to spin her story into an airtight 90 minutes full of memorable characters and painful truths. And director Robin Witt, who is enjoying a stellar year (“The Commons” follows on the heels of her extraordinary helming of Griffin Theatre’s “Men Should Weep”), has gathered a cast of six that is pure perfection.

Peet has taken her inspiration from the Bernie Madoff scandal but spun her own version of the fallout for his family by imagining a story in which a mother and her two adult daughters (rather than Madoff’s two sons) try to find some way forward while living under the pitch-black cloud of an infamous crime.

Judith (Linda Kimbrough), who insists she knew nothing about her husband’s financial skullduggery, has lost almost everything. She is 71, on a serious regimen of medications, and lives alone, but retains her caustic sense of humor. Her husband is in jail, her living expenses are being intensely scrutinized by the Feds, and she is more or less “in exile” in a generic condo in Pensacola, Fla. (ocean view notwithstanding), with no trace of her past, including her family. Old habits die hard, however, and she does manage to have a maid/assistant, Lorena (a no-nonsense Lily Mojekwu), a Caribbean immigrant raising two kids on far less than Judith’s own “allowance.”

“You are just living like the rest of the world,” one of Judith’s daughters reminds her (though in fact, she is living better than most). But as Judith quips, she is probably the only person in Florida who wishes she would get Alzheimer’s.

Arriving from New York is Becca (Lusia Strus), her 43-year-old daughter — a still struggling actress who babysits for her compassionate agent’s children. She has brought along her latest boyfriend, Gabe (a perfectly attractive-smarmy Erik Hellman), a freelance journalist 13 years her junior. Quite the transparent opportunist, Gabe hopes to devise some sort of “docu-series” that would gain him attention and, as he tries to sell it, serve as a platform for forgiveness for Judith (even if the family is forbidden to profit in any way from their story). Also visiting for the holiday is Judith’s sexy, foul-mouthed teenage granddaughter, Lizzy (Leah Karpel is ideal), whose mother, Ali (Lori Myers), “the Yale grad,” has totally divorced herself from her mother. (The clearly angry and traumatized Ali does fly in from Colorado after Judith is suddenly hospitalized, creating a huge storm and leaving almost immediately.)

As mother and daughter, Kimbrough and Strus, veteran Chicago actresses who can flip from tragedy to comedy in a single breath, are a match made in heaven as two women imprisoned in a web of love, loss, fear and need. Their blistering mother-daughter firefight is a stunner, and would have been the ideal place to end the play. Peet should have resisted the urge to put a slightly upbeat ending on a story that cannot possibly have one — and the door to the little balcony of Judith’s condo should have remained stuck. But this is a small quibble about an otherwise taut and telling play, and a production that kicks off Northlight’s 40th anniversary season in superb style.

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