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‘Goddess’ finds riches in familiar celebrity tale

Why can one celebrity continue to work and reinvent him or herself throughout a long, productive career while another finds it almost impossible to deal with meteoric success and gradually spirals into self-destruction? That is among the many questions explored in “The Goddess,” the screenplay-turned-stage play by Paddy Chayefsky, now receiving a grand-scale production by The Artistic Home, a storefront operation invariably full of fine surprises.

Chayefsky, a master writer of the Golden Age of television (“Marty”) and a major Hollywood screenwriter (“Network”), penned the screenplay for “The Goddess” in 1956 and co-produced it on a shoestring, with Kim Stanley making her film debut in the title role. Now, after a long quest for the rights, Chicago director John Mossman has turned the script into a true work of theater.

The story is hardly a new one as it follows the rise and fall of a star not unlike Marilyn Monroe (and others). But it is exceptionally skillful in the way it probes the psychological roots of the quest for celebrity, and the inability of fame and fortune to substitute for a deeper quest — love and acceptance by those that really matter.

At the center of “The Goddess” is Emily Ann Faulkner (later renamed Rita Shawn), who grows up in small-town, Depression era Maryland, and is the entirely unwanted child of a young and restless mother whose husband has left her. Emily will eventually “succeed” where her mother failed. But by the time she finds her place in the Hollywood sun — the result of some indefinable warmth and availability that emerges on film — she will have married too many men (most of them as lost and troubled as her own father), repeated history by abandoning her young daughter, performed far too many casting couch favors, become hooked on alcohol and pills, and then, when all else has failed, turned to God. Nothing can fill the emptiness.

Seizing hold of this marathon role is Lee Stark, an actress I’ve seen in a few small parts, none of which prepared me for the truly powerhouse performance she delivers here. In Emily Ann, Chayefsky has given us a real person, not the caricature of a star. And Stark, beautifully directed by Mossman, gets right under her skin, capturing all the hunger, desperation, neediness, ambition and sense of futility that drives this woman over many years. This is a tremendously confident, go-for-broke performance, and Stark, shapely and blond, tough and vulnerable, never falters.

Stark is expertly backed by a huge supporting cast, with standout performances by her two “husbands” — Daniel McEvilly as John Tower, a worldly, self-destructive soldier whose dad is a movie star, and Josh Odor as Dutch Seymour, a retired boxing champion whose fame is flickering just as Emily Ann’s star is rising. Also first-rate are Maria Stephens as Emily’s faith-altered mother; Skye Shrum as her alcoholic roommate; Flavia Borges as a maid; and Katherine Swan as the star’s caretaker — one of those creepy enablers who seems always to be waiting in the wings.

‘THE GODDESS’

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

When: Through Nov. 17

Where: The Artistic Home, 1376 W. Grand

Tickets: $28-$32

Info: (866) 811-4111; www.theartistichome.org

Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission

Email: hweiss@suntimes.com

Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic