Playwrights’ Center


Step-by-Step Productions

at Sheffield’s School Street Cafe

In 1986 Romie Angelich went on a road trip with her father, a Vietnam vet and career military man. As they drove, somewhere between Memphis and Little Rock, they listened to a tape the family had recorded for him 15 years before–an audio letter on a cassette labeled “General Electric Reusable Tape Cartridge–30 Minutes of True Fidelity Recording.” She’d never listened to it before, and she was surprised by what she heard–the life, the happy chaos, the giggling, the support.

The experience of hearing that tape gradually grew into Angelich’s debut play, on view at the Playwrights’ Center. She’s taken events she participated in but was too young to remember and explored them in a script that, despite some problems, shows real dramatic flair.

There’s not much plot. Rose Kreuger waits on a military base for her husband to return. She tapes him letters. She battles with her daughter Jacki, who’s growing up on 60s dissent and can’t stomach the insincerities that keep her mother’s life from falling apart. She drinks with the other ladies, sleeps with the base commander, battles some more, tapes some more. The play advances not by bringing events to a crisis but by coaxing us to see deeper and deeper into characters we thought we understood completely at the start.

Angelich is a stand-up comedian, and the experience shows in her dialogue. It’s not that she writes jokes. In fact, she seems to steer clear of them, which was a terrific idea. But Angelich has the comedian’s rhythm–setup, payoff, build, turn away, return–and it turns out to be good for drama, too. You’re aware as the story unfolds of a tough intelligence picking away at the lines, looking for an opening, looking for a way to turn things around and open up new meanings.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the dialogue all works. True Fidelity is populated with inarticulate people, inarticulate not because they’re stupid but because they’re controlled. Even when they bare their souls (which they do with distressing frequency) they’re holding back, throwing up a smoke screen of language–bland, middle-class language. You hear echoes of pop-psych in the ladies’ speech, and good high school educations, and talk shows. What you don’t hear is the ring of spontaneity and truth.

Is that how these people would really talk? Well, yes and no. Angelich isn’t wrong. She’s just caught between two strategies. On the one hand, there’s the strategy I think she’s trying to follow, one of conventional realism. If that’s what she’s after, then she needs more indirection. As it stands, most of the characters spend far too much time announcing their inner states and analyzing Profound Issues. They take everything head-on, and they all seem to know exactly what they think and say it without hesitation. There are no secrets for Rose and Jacki, no depths to discover. Maybe that’s real life, but I doubt it, and it certainly doesn’t make compelling viewing.

Maybe I’m missing the point, though. Maybe Angelich is pursuing the other strategy, a sort of realist’s antirealism. Maybe she’s deliberately keeping the language dead, artificial, and cliched to make a statement about the way conventions hem her characters in. Certainly conventions are one of her concerns: Rose, Jacki, and the ladies come back to manners, image, and sincerity over and over again. And the core of Rose’s problem is achieving “fidelity” in all its conflicting meanings–faithfulness to her absent, flawed husband, faithfulness to ideals that don’t mean anything immediate to her, faithfulness to herself.

There’s fidelity in the audio sense too, though: getting the message across without distortion. And Rose can’t do that. At the end of the play she tries again, turning on the machine and promising “the unexpurgated Rose.” But the unexpurgated Rose remains silent. She can’t say she’s slept with the colonel, or that her daughter has packed a bag and gone, or that in his absence she’s become something she wasn’t. “We could go fishing together,” she tells the spinning tape. In the linguistic world of the play, there are no words to say what she most needs to say.

That sounds like a pretty good strategy to me, but it’s only there in patches. If this is the way Angelich wants to go, she needs to bring that sharp intelligence to bear on the texture of the speech in her play. She’s got to find the poetry of dull talk, the way a Mamet or Rabe finds the poetry of sleaze. We’ve got to see the soul trapped behind the words.

That’s partly an actor’s job, of course, and one member of the cast did an impressive job of it even with a less-than-perfect script. Kent Reed as Colonel Waller has a fine scene where Jacki interrogates him about his past. He describes his father’s pointless wartime death in classic military understatement. The language is dead, affectless, but Waller finds life and drama in it. From moment to moment we can watch him using his words differently–now hiding behind them, now revealing himself (but as neutrally as possible in order not to beg for the sympathy he may or may not want), now accepting the lifeless sound of his own words as a just portrayal of the events he’s describing. It’s a fine piece of acting, Reed’s first in town, and it suggests the script may be better than it looks.

The rest of the cast range from adequate to good. Mia Lefkowitz has a hard row to hoe with Rose. It’s partly the character, with her repressions and contradictions; but it’s also the script’s inconsistencies. I’d like to see Rose cranked up a bit more–harder, brighter, sexier, more clearly holding back. I don’t think the script would sustain it though, so Lefkowitz’s more moderate approach is probably safer. Carmella Mulvihill makes Jacki into a fragile but hard-assed teen; the playwright kind of blanks out during her big scene, though, so Mulvihill never gets to show everything she can do. The ladies–Sue Cargill, Susan Shimer, and Paulette McDaniels–need more room to breathe, but they get some warmth and pace going.

During the performance we hear snippets of real audio letters sent and received by the families of Angelich and her codirector, Jim MacDowell. They’re fascinating to hear, full of emotion and reserve. If this is where Romie Angelich has turned to learn the art of playwrighting, she’s chosen herself a good school.

Pastabilities is a first effort by a PR-person-turned-playwright in her 20s named Shelley Fichtel. Not surprisingly, it’s about being a PR-person-turned-waitress-but-trying- to-turn-writer in her 20s. At the conclusion of the play, the love interest, a crotchety bartender/filmmaker, is persuaded to turn his masterpiece–a bitterly satirical screenplay about American politics–into a romance between a presidential candidate and . . . you guessed it.

Shelley Fichtel has talent. Her jokes are often funny, and there’s a nice, likable tone to Pastabilities. But she doesn’t seem particularly interested in her characters, or what they do. And the show as produced bears an unfortunate resemblance to a rather conspicuous TV sitcom. (The new waitress is blond, college-educated, and a stiff. She has eyes–sometimes–for the bartender, who’s tall and dark with a lot of stiff hair and is beneath her socially. The old waitress has curly hair and a mouth . . .)

Jennifer Hauser directs, in her Chicago debut. The cast isn’t half bad. Deb Seigel as “Quiche” Lorraine (actress/waitress) knows how to deliver a joke, and Scott Markwell as a zany waiter gets to play the harmonica, sing, and mug ferociously, for which we should all be grateful.