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LYDIE BREEZE, Big Game Theater, at Chicago Actors Ensemble. A vintage modern melodrama filled with gothic excesses, John Guare’s elegiac drama is part of a dark trilogy (including Gardenia and Women and Water) that depicts perishable American idealism. Set in 1895, Lydie Breeze focuses on the bitter aftermath of a failed Nantucket commune, its lofty goals snuffed out by the usual suspects, jealousy and ambition.

With excruciating details worthy of Faulkner and O’Neill at their most obsessive, Guare traces the moral collapse of one generation through its effects on the next, characterizing the victims by their own epithets–monsters, power seekers, ghosts. Secrets are exposed and recriminations hurled, there are multiple mad scenes, and Guare throws in a double suicide to give the illusion of action, since the dialogue is mostly passionate exposition: descriptions of past or unseen events.

David Cromer, who staged Big Game’s solid Women and Water superbly in 1991, agitates his cast into all the grand fury Guare requires–and more. Like a young Bette Davis discovering the power of a flailing elbow, Natasha Lowe campily agonizes as the predatory daughter, while Mark L. Montgomery is nearly rabid as a vengeful actor. (At least his intensity can be explained by his character.) It’s fun to watch scenery-chewing this florid, but far from serving the script, it intensifies Guare’s already rhapsodic, almost incoherent histrionics.

The most impressive element here is nonverbal. Jane Galt’s sandy beach and cutaway cottage are like a sepia-tinted photograph, conveying a long-ago Nantucket summer.