Chicago Theatre Company

Something is missing from Hannah Davis. On the surface this play seems to have all the ingredients for a satisfying piece of naturalistic theater. The characters are dynamic, interesting, and often at each other’s throats. The plot revolves around the ailing father of four successful children who spends his final hours reminiscing about his boyhood sexual adventures with a promiscuous girl named Hannah Davis. This confession, which amuses, embarrasses, and angers his wife and children, leads to the shocking revelation that concludes the play. Sounds like a surefire recipe for dramatic success, especially since the production by the Chicago Theatre Company is solid.

So what’s missing? A purpose. The play consists of scenes–some of them quite interesting–that have little to do with each other. They never accumulate into a point of view or a mood. They don’t even hang together well enough to form a coherent story. The play made me think of a comment by Mike Nichols, the extraordinary director who helped found the Compass Players, which evolved into Second City. Every audience, he said, always asks the playwright the same question: “Why are you telling us this?” Usually the answer is so obvious that the audience is never actually conscious of the question. But when the answer is not clear, the question begins to hang over the production like a foul odor.

Playwright Leslie Lee has managed to create some authentic characters. The three sisters, for example, are utterly believable in the way they harass each other. Having congregated at their parents’ home to celebrate their father’s birthday, they criticize each other from the moment the lights come up on them. Their animosity grows with each drink they take, and they take quite a few–in terms of alcohol consumption this play rivals Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? When Heidi, a world-famous opera star, gets up to shut off a record of her own singing, her sister Annette blocks her path. “Will you move your carcass please?” Heidi snaps. Then their younger sister Celeste chimes in, “Mother, she’s an adult now. She doesn’t have to have her own way.” Petty, yes, but utterly believable, which is why these conflicts are so engaging.

Lee also introduces some interesting issues into the dialogue. Celeste accuses Heidi of singing only “white” music and associating only with white people. Their argument over the temptation of black people to “disassociate” from their culture is a shorthand summary of a debate many contemporary blacks face.

Maybe Lee sees connections among the various parts. Maybe Lee’s trying to say something about the consequences of a father’s high ambitions for his children. Maybe Celeste’s determination to cling to her blackness is a comment about the dangers of refusing to participate in “white” culture. But the moments don’t stick together. Even the father’s deep, dark secret has no apparent connection to the rest of the play. In fact, it’s as though Lee had two separate plays in mind–one about a family split by jealousy and resentment, and the other about an old man plodding through life under the burden of a terrible secret.

Still, the actors make the most of the memorable characters. Emily Brown is engaging as Celeste, the sassy schoolteacher who slides into a drunken stupor as the play progresses. Candace Hunter is self-possessed and slightly haughty as Annette, a rising young TV newscaster. Vikki Barrett as Heidi eventually works herself into a titanic rage over Celeste’s taunts. David Barr portrays Rex, the ambitious urban politician, as cool, smooth, and potentially ruthless. Debi Chavis manages to convey the perpetual fussing of a dutiful wife and mother. And Jaye Stewart does a fine job of presenting Harold as a larger-than-life patriarch who has shrunk into a frail and pathetic old man.

The actors do well with their individual parts, and director Douglas Alan-Mann deftly accentuates the many conflicts that add zest to the action. But they can’t provide the coherence the play lacks, and they can’t prevent Hannah Davis from falling apart.