Another Part of the Forest

WHEN Through 11/26: Tue 7:30 PM, Wed-Fri 8 PM, Sat 5 and 8 PM, Sun 2:30 and 6 PM

WHERE Writers’

Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe

PRICE $40-$58

INFO 847-242-6000

The hottest American playwright of the 20th century? Sigmund Freud. Not even being Austrian and dead (after 1939) could dilute the great doctor’s popularity. Not even his failure to author a play. There were loads of talented scribes willing to act as his proxies. The American stage was a kind of atelier for a while, where skilled artisans turned out work after work under his ghostly supervision. Freud had found the key to human behavior, and everybody had a lock they thought they could open with it.

Of course, Freud’s lesser works stopped getting produced regularly as his reputation waned along with the century. But now, suddenly (maybe it’s a boom-generation thing–a return to the psychoanalyses of our fathers), there’s a spasm of revivals in Chicago. No less than three Freuds are running simultaneously: two by William Inge, one by Lillian Hellman.

And two of those are awfully good: the Shattered Globe production of Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba–and now, the Writers’ Theatre staging of Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest.

This 1946 prequel to The Little Foxes is set in tiny Bowden, Alabama, 15 years after the Civil War. Having made a dirty fortune off his fellow southerners by war profiteering, old Marcus Hubbard cultivates his new image as a genteel aristocrat but keeps his sons, cunning Ben and foolish Oscar, on short leashes. Wife Lavinia, meanwhile, wanders around like a born-again Lady Macbeth, driven Jesus-dotty by guilt over the family crimes. Only daughter Regina seems to know how to get her way, manipulating Marcus’s unacknowledged jones for her. The accumulated tensions lead, as they must, to an oedipal explosion.

But not before we’ve had a great time. Hellman’s dark scenario is leavened by her clear-eyed cynical wit. She gets a lot of low-comic mileage out of Oscar and his doxy, Laurette, while applying a lighthearted viciousness to the whole Hubbard clan.

William Brown’s unsentimental direction and sharp cast bring out Hellman’s clear eyes nicely. (That seems to be the secret of handling the Freudian canon today: the Shattered Globe Sheba was similarly dry.) Audrey Francis and Matthew Holzfeind make great clowns as Laurette and Oscar while Joel Hatch underlines Marcus’s malicious arrogance by playing deftly away from it. But Penny Slusher’s Lavinia is the highlight: though crushingly abused, she’s only dotty north-northwest; when the wind is southerly she, like Hamlet, knows a hawk from a handsaw.

Set in a small Oklahoma town in the 20s, the third Freud, Inge’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, is built around a love triangle: Cora Flood is caught between her feelings for her rough-hewn, cowpoke-ish husband, Rubin, and her eroticized connection with her kids–especially a son on the verge of puberty. Cora’s therapeutic challenge is to get her psychological house in order.

And “challenge” is the right word for it. Inge plugs away at Cora’s problem for 145 earnest minutes, offering only other problems as relief. Though he’s got obvious affection for the characters in this reputedly autobiographical play, produced here by American Theater Company, he doesn’t get them the way Hellman gets hers. He draws them with a combination of mawkishness and clinical reserve that suggests he doesn’t want to know them so much as solve–or resolve–them.

Cheryl Graeff might’ve overcome this essential difficulty if she’d found a way to play Cora’s passionate–yes, and even inappropriate–undercurrents. She didn’t, though, and comes across clunky, weepy, weak, and dull. Under the circumstances, the spark of life Tim Decker gives Rubin is so much wasted energy.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.