The sociologist Matthew Desmond’s 2016 book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, opens by recounting a year in the life of one family in Milwaukee. Single mom Arleen and her two sons are evicted from their apartment over property damage perpetrated by a stranger. They spend a few months in a homeless shelter until Arleen finds another rental they can afford; after a few weeks the city deems the house unfit for human habitation, and the family winds up in a drug-ridden apartment complex where Arleen worries about her sons’ safety. Four months later, the mother moves the boys into their fifth address in a span of 12 months’ time; the rent eats up 88 percent of Arleen’s welfare check.
‘Landladies’ ★★★ When: Through April 20 Where: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie Tickets: $30 – $88 Info: northlight.org Run time: 1 hours 30 minutes, with no intermission
Playwright Sharyn Rothstein’s new play “Landladies,” which was commissioned by Northlight Theatre, was inspired by her reading of “Evicted,” which profiles eight Milwaukee families like Arleen’s, each of which struggles to stay in good standing with their landlords. But Desmond’s book also looks at the landlords, those building owners who choose to rent to the most vulnerable classes of tenants, who may have evictions on their records, bad or no credit scores, and who may be willing to accept code-violating conditions of disrepair. These landlords might be just a few missed mortgage payments or unexpected repairs away from finding themselves in their own tenants’ shoes.
In Rothstein’s tale, the landlady is Marti (Shanesia Davis), a former nurse’s aide who’s reinvented herself in the image of a successful businesswoman, even if image is all there is to it. Marti owns three buildings in an undesirable neighborhood of an unnamed city. Judging by the unit she shows to prospective tenant Christine (Leah Karpel) in the opening scene, Marti knows her renters are likely to be desperate enough to accept all kinds of indignities.
Things like broken windows? A kitchen with no oven? A gaping hole in the floor that goes clear through to the unit below, where a lonely widower watches late-night reruns of “I Love Lucy” with the volume turned all the way up? “It’s on my list,” Marti assures Christine, though we can see as clearly as Christine does that the things on Marti’s list rarely get checked off.
But Christine, a twentysomething woman with a sharp wit and a dead-end fast-food job, is busy trying to conceal her own baggage — like Zella, the four-year-old daughter she plans to hide from Marti, because she’s already been turned down by too many other landlords who wouldn’t accept a kid. And then there’s Poet (Julian Parker), the on-again, off-again boyfriend Christine can’t seem to get rid of — or can’t decide whether she wants to.
Marti, though, is a bit too hands-on of a landlord for those kinds of secrets to be kept for long. Compounding her list of tenant-rights violations, Marti can’t be bothered to repair the hole in the floor but does let herself into Christine’s apartment on a regular basis; soon, both Zella and Poet are out of the bag.
You may well wonder if she barges in on all her renters with such frequency. But we’re meant to see the developing of a special bond between Christine and Marti. The landlady sees a spark of untapped potential in Christine — something like the independent spirit that led Marti to go into business for herself. And Christine admires Marti’s determination and self-actualization, even if Marti’s success is kind of a precarious illusion.
Hustle recognizes hustle when these two women meet. Marti takes a protective interest in Christine and Zella — and Marti doesn’t approve of Poet’s presence in their lives, eventually forcing Christine to make a choice: evict him from their lives, or get evicted from Marti’s building.
That Poet proves to be exactly who Marti pegs him as is, frankly, a little disappointing; Parker is too intelligent and charming a performer to be playing such a stock character. But all three actors help enliven the material in Jess McLeod’s canny staging. It’s a treat to see the smart, Chicago-bred Karpel back onstage here after a few years in New York.
And the always-engaging Davis seems to saturate Marti with unspoken backstory — the better to cover for her character’s relatively low stakes, compared to Christine’s. Marti might be in debt, but her home has, as Christine sarcastically notes, “a refrigerator just for wine,” while the unit Marti rents to Christine is literally lacking a kitchen sink.
You don’t get the sense that Marti has ever had the poor person’s perspective that Christine accurately lays out near the play’s end, turning down the offer of a five-dollar bill. “Five is charity,” Christine tells her landlady. “Two thousand is life.”
Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.