Bailiwick Repertory

at the Theatre Building

Claudia Allen’s Hannah Free is an utterly conventional drama about an utterly unconventional topic: the lifelong romantic relationship between two women in their 80s. This contradiction gives the play its subversive power. Allen takes a story that in today’s political climate might be considered offensive or “antifamily” and presents it in such a tender way that even Dan Quayle might be moved to admit that lesbians contribute to the world.

Of course, Mr. Quayle will never come near this production. Nor will most of the people in Chicago whose prejudices might be swayed an inch or two. As part of Bailiwick’s 1992 Pride Performance Series, this new play will reach a largely gay–or at least gay-friendly–audience. But this delicately though unevenly staged Hannah Free might still inspire the gay community–not least by presenting meaningful images of older lesbians.

Hannah Free is set in the nursing home where Hannah (Deborah Davis) lives, confined to bed after a life of obsessive wanderlust. Her on-again, off-again lover of 60-odd years, Rachel (Pamela Gray), lies in a coma three doors away, hooked up to life-sustaining equipment. Rachel’s daughter Marge (Suzy Kuhn) has forbidden Hannah to see her lover, because Marge can only see the distress and anxiety that Rachel’s tumultuous relationship with Hannah brought her.

Allen creates Hannah and Rachel as polar opposites. While Hannah has spent her life on the move, constantly looking for “something new to see,” Rachel has never wandered outside of the state of Michigan, preferring instead the security and comfort of home. They are entirely wrong for each other and thus cannot bear to be apart.

While the elderly Rachel remains motionless in bed throughout the play, a younger Rachel (Elaine Carlson) visits Hannah regularly, and the two women continue the battles they have fought for the last 60 years. It is only when Rachel’s great-granddaughter Greta (Theresa Carlson) shows up and secretly escorts Hannah to Rachel’s room at three in the morning that Hannah can finally see the wasted body of her beloved. She must then face the most difficult decision of her life: whether to turn off Rachel’s life-sustaining equipment.

The relationships between Hannah, Rachel, and Greta form the emotional backbone of the piece and deliver many powerful moments. When Hannah first sees Rachel lying unconscious, she simply runs a hand down Rachel’s forearm and clasps her hand gently. This simple and familiar gesture is all that is needed to dramatize the end of the long history these women share.

Many scenes from Hannah and Rachel’s relationship are portrayed in flashback. While these scenes are well written and performed–especially the scene in which Hannah pays a surprise visit to Rachel and meets Rachel’s two children from her recently deceased husband–dramatically they seem unnecessary. And the fundamental tension in their relationship–Hannah wants to leave, and Rachel wants to stay put–is reiterated in each scene without evolution.

In an odd way, though, the fact that these flashbacks seem unnecessary testifies to Allen’s skill as a playwright. Allen creates a full and rich picture of the relationship simply by letting Hannah and the younger Rachel reminisce during the first 15 minutes of the play. The moments they recall are so well chosen that they virtually contain all the ensuing flashbacks.

Two of the minor characters, the Old Man (Roy McCall) and the Minister (Colleen Sheehan), also seem dramatically unnecessary. The Old Man, a stock nursing home character, wanders in and out of Hannah’s room unexpectedly, believing himself still a soldier in World War II wondering where his horses are kept. As comic relief he was disappointing, not only because his type of character has been seen so many times before but because so much of the other humor in this play is more subtle and sophisticated. His one significant moment, acknowledging and supporting Hannah and Rachel’s relationship, has little impact on the play. The Minister shows up unexplained at the top of act two and tries to convince Hannah to repent the sins of her homosexual life. This scene functions as a rather obvious railing against fundamentalism, a target too easy for so emotionally complex a play. But it’s no surprise that in its first production, Allen’s script could stand some further editing.

Despite the unneeded material, Hannah Free holds together well. Under director Laurie Attea’s measured hand, it’s a quiet and endearing evening that rarely lapses into sentimentality. And while none of the cast–which also includes Cecilie Keenan as Hannah’s indifferent nurse–delivers a knockout performance, they all understand the necessity of a delicate touch to bring this play to life.