Late in the deceptively understated “Lady in Denmark,” one of the two titular ladies talks about the unbreakable bonds interlocking death and memory. As Helene recalls her childhood in Denmark and her more than 40-year love affair with her late husband Lars, the memories are bright as cut-glass in a sunbeam, blazing with color and heat. But that glass comes in shards that pierce your heart.
‘Lady in Denmark’
When: Through Nov. 18
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $15 – $45
Dael Orlandersmith’s deceptively understated 100-minute piece shows how the passing of a loved one unleashes a flood of remembered joys roiling with equally intense pain at the inescapable realization that those joys are forever over. As Helene (Linda Gehringer) tells her story in the one-woman production, love, joy and loss are inextricably bound up in the music of Billie Holiday. Under director Chay Yew’s steady hand, silence and music, heartbreak and ecstasy, trauma and everyday life dance together. And one thing becomes unmistakable: The more intensely you are moved by the music, the more painfully you’ll feel the silence that inevitably follows.
We start in 2014, with Helene describing the elaborate 80th birthday party she threw for her beloved husband Lars — who died three weeks before the party. Still, his birthday is a rambunctious, food-and-family filled event. Helene makes their Andersonville home (rendered with gorgeous detail by set designer Andrew Boyce) alive with dancing and food and wine and — above all else — music. Which brings us back to the play’s title. Lady Day (the incomparable Holiday) performing at the time in Denmark, and on records, provided the soundtrack of Helene’s life.
Sometimes you can literally hear the music, as in the many moments when Billie Holiday records create an auditory scene/partner for the one-woman show. Sometimes, the music is metaphorical rather than aural. Either way, sound designer Mikhail Fiksel ably captures the impact Holiday’s galvanizing, groundbreaking sound had on Helene and – by extension – the world.
Helene is in her 70s throughout “Lady in Denmark,” but her memories are cinematic in their color. They light up like flares, moments of brilliant clarity that sear into your mind before fading.
One flare: At 5, Helene sees German tanks rolling through Denmark. She asks her mother if they are monsters.
Another: At 14, Helene sneaks out to a jazz club. The night ends when she is raped by a family friend, a “good man” beloved for feeding people during the war. The rapist is later found dead, his hands cut off, body left where it would be seen. Helene’s father tells the family they are never to speak the man’s name again. Helene is condemned by the town as a temptress and a whore, the slut responsible for the death of a “good man.”
Another flare: Helene, her parents and younger sister sitting in right front of the stage while Holiday performs in Denmark in the 1950s. The family is beside themselves with excitement, Helene and her sister wearing flowers in their hair, rapt at the appearance of their idol right in front of them. Holiday winds up having dinner with the family, Helene’s physician father treating the singer’s cough and offering to treat her drug addiction. You could get better in Denmark, Helene’s father says, because here, we know what you have is a disease and not a moral failing. Holiday would be dead within five years.
Another flare: Helene moves with Lars to Andersonville in 1966. One of their first stops is the Green Mill jazz club.
The audience never sees Lady Day (except in Stephen Mazurek’s dreamlike projections) or Lars or Helene’s family, but through Gehringer’s hypnotic delivery, all are full-blooded, living, breathing individuals.
Orlandersmith’s monologue is worded and structured for maximum impact. When Helene talks about Lady Day’s modulation on the word “crop” during a performance of “Strange Fruit,” she captures the iconic song’s power. That single word, Helene says, was like “a cry for humanity” reverberating from the atrocities of World War II through the present day. The vibrant, excited heat of Billie Holiday’s Denmark concert echoes the warmth and noise of Lars’ 80th birthday party more than half a century later. When Holiday dies, it foreshadows the bottomless abyss that opens up with Lars’ death.
Helene carried trauma within almost her entire life, but she didn’t let it define her anymore than Holiday’s glorious music was defined by the vocalist’s heroin addiction. Both are unforgettable in “Lady in Denmark.”
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.