Imagine watching the family drama of “August: Osage County” play out with you seated in the house as the action unfolds around you, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the theatrical experience director David H. Bell has successfully created with “Southern Gothic.” It is the latest entry in immersive theater that is on trend both here and in New York, wherein the audience is placed within the story world alongside the actors, essentially eliminating the “fourth wall.” Unlike interactive shows such as “Tony and Tina’s Wedding,” however, you observe but do not chat with the performers.
Set in 1961, “Southern Gothic” features Ellie Coutier (Sarah Grant) and her husband Beau (Michael McKeough), who are throwing Ellie’s sister-in-law Suzanne (Brianna Borger) a 40th birthday party. It’s also a bit of a return to society for Beau after a stint in rehab, and Ellie might just be testing her husband’s commitment to sobriety by throwing a dinner party where alcohol and wine will be free-flowing.
When: Open run
Where: Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park
Though Ellie’s shy and protective older brother Jackson Wellington (Paul Fagen) tries to keep Suzanne on a leash, she is a master at the backhanded compliment, and throughout the evening seems to take delight in belittling her friends. As the liquor flows, her barbs get even more razor-sharp.
Gregarious but ruthless Southern politician Charles Lyon (Brian McCaskill) is there with his mousey wife Lauren (Christine Mayland Perkins). McCaskill’s performance is picture-perfect; his Charles is the type who can simultaneously shake your hand and stab you in the back without you realizing what has just occurred. Perkins also turns in a fine performance as the sad and lonely politician’s wife who self-medicates with booze.
The final guests of the evening are wealthy playboy Tucker Alsworth (a charming Peter Ash) and his current girlfriend, budding African-American journalist Cassie Smith (a graceful Ariel Richardson). Given the time and the setting (1961 Georgia), their relationship is perhaps the most daring as it was technically illegal at the time. Rather than simply be an act of defying traditional Southern conventions by a spoiled rich boy, Tucker seems to be genuinely in love with Cassie.
Grant’s Ellie is sweet, but exhausted from trying to have it all, despite the fact that she isn’t quite sure if she wants to keep the life she has. McKeogh’s Beau is perhaps the most sympathetic character of the lot. He’s a man trying to make things right after hitting rock bottom – a 1960’s Don Quixote jousting at windmills, as most of his family and friends have already written him off as a lost cause.
The script, by playwright Leslie Liautaud and co-creators Amy Rubenstein and Carl Menninger, is immediately reminiscent of T.S. Lewis’ “The Cocktail Party” mixed with the cattiness of Clare Booth Luce’s “The Women” and the collective works of Tennessee Williams. Perkins’ portrayal of Lauren, in particular, is cut from the same cloth as any of Williams’ emotionally damaged Southern Belles.
The largest and biggest looming character of the whole affair is the house itself courtesy of Scott Davis’ scenic design and Eleanor Kahn’s props. The outside of a two-story home, its first floor and small backyard patio have been created with meticulous attention to detail. Kitchen cupboards contain period-appropriate Welch’s jelly jar glasses, dinnerware and packaged foods. A closet contains vintage coats and suitcases. All rooms are tastefully decorated with period-appropriate furniture, too. Window seats are placed along side many walls, so scenes can be watched from those perches or even through the home’s many glass-less windows. The audience is limited to only 28 patrons, and from the onset, as Ellie and Beau go about their final party preparations, you’re encouraged to explore the home.
There’s a “Choose Your Own Adventure” feel to the play, as competing scenes happening in different spaces of the set mean you may find yourself dashing from the kitchen to the backyard to learn the cause of Beau and Ellie’s money problems only to quickly jaunt back inside into the dining room to pick up a conversation about someone’s marital infidelity.
Along the way you offered three cocktails amid the affair, and while you’re encouraged to nosh on anything set out for the play’s characters, don’t expect a fancy spread. There is a plot point about a car crash with the caterer that has Ellie and Beau frantically whipping up hors d’oeuvres with what they have on hand. The nibbles include potato chips, popcorn, Ritz crackers with spray-can cheese and Spam, and graham crackers with marshmallow fluff.
“Southern Gothic” is probably not your grandparent’s 1960s cocktail party, but it is a compelling drama.
Misha Davenport is a Chicago-based freelance writer.