Quando Productions

at Chicago Cooperative Stage

A few weeks ago I happened to watch on TV a little of Elvis Presley’s 1968 comeback tour. There he was, surrounded by adoring fans, not yet fat, his eyelids drooping only slightly with the foreshadowing of drug abuse, still looking gorgeous in black leather. He was great. He was funny. He was the King.

But I had to turn it off; it was making me too sad. The audience was filled with middle-aged women with flipped hair, swaying softly and waving handkerchiefs at their hero, each hoping he’d mop his brow with the one she held. These were wistful people whose youth had run out on them, who were trying to bring back their glory days, the days when they could wiggle their pelvises with the best of them.

Quando Productions’ Graceland and Asleep on the Wind, two one-acts by Ellen Byron, brought that concert immediately to mind: they capture that same wistful quality even as they pay tribute to Elvis’s memory. These one-acts, essentially character studies, embrace the lives of a few people who have taken Elvis as their savior, and show us what effect that choice has had.

Not a whole lot happens in either play. Graceland, which takes place in 1982, tells the story of a young woman, Rootie, and an older woman, Bev, who vie for the honor of being the first outsider ever to enter the Graceland mansion in Memphis once it’s opened to the public. Bev is a junk-food-chomping vision in polyester who has driven all the way from Delaware, determined to get inside the mansion before anyone else. At home she’s turned her basement into an Elvis memorial room, and she’s achieved a certain degree of national celebrity by being the first to enter various Elvis shrines–the Meditation Garden and Gravesite, for example–the first to go to the Elvis museum, to touch his statue, etc. Rootie is a poor Cajun girl from the Louisiana bayou, a near anorexic painfully lacking in self-esteem. She eats nothing but hard-boiled eggs, although she talks about how much she likes other food, and spends every other minute caking her face with makeup. Camped out, waiting for Graceland to open, the two share their life stories and their passion for Elvis over the course of an afternoon. Gradually it becomes clear that Elvis is a kind of catalyst for the two women’s deeper loves: Bev’s for her husband, and Rootie’s for her dead brother, Beau.

Asleep on the Wind takes us back ten years to when Rootie, age 13, lived in Bayou Teche, Louisiana. Written after Graceland, the play reenacts Rootie’s memory of her last interaction with her brother. This is a tender, bittersweet depiction of the relationship between an adoring young girl and her doting older brother. Although powerful in its own right, Asleep on the Wind derives much of its strength from the fact that we already know from the first play the tragedies that the brother and sister will encounter.

Director Betsey Cassell and her capable actors have developed a rough but loving production of these two intimate plays. True, there is nothing brilliant about Quando Productions’ first venture, nothing stands out as a particularly insightful choice. But everything here–acting, directing, design–fits together to create a simple, straightforward environment in which the plays can speak for themselves.

John Braun as Beau has a Cajun accent that’s a bit awkward, but he makes up for it with a beautiful combination of sensitivity and humor. The flame of his love for Rootie is always present, even when he rages at her, and his affectionate, playful teasing will strike a chord in any little sister. Eighth-grader Hannah Crum, as 13-year-old Rootie, is the perfect foil for Braun, partly because her genuine youth is so much in contrast to his experience. And they interact as if they really have been together all their lives. Crum, who has all the gawkiness of a real teenager, uses that to enhance her character instead of trying to cover it up with acting tricks.

Buff Lynde Lee is a feisty, gruff Bev who’s as comfortable in her polyester pantsuit as if she’d been born in it. Elaine Behr gets off to a weak start as the grown-up Rootie: she contradicts her character by playing Rootie as stronger-willed and more melodramatic than the lines indicate. But Behr’s characterization suits the second half of the play better, and she does a fine job with her big revealing monologue.

Director Betsey Cassell’s staging is clumsy for Graceland, but Asleep on the Wind is full of movement that’s both active and interesting–when the child and adult Rooties seem to merge, for example. Mostly, though, Cassell creates an intimate, warm milieu for the plays. Someone named A.M. Vetz adds simple but appropriately detailed costumes; Bev’s costume is particularly good, right down to the awkwardly padded bra that’s the perfect complement to her ensemble.