at Covenant Methodist Church Playhouse

If you’re as discouraged as I am by the unceasing onslaught of one-note, testosterone-soaked, anguish-fests wrapped in the banner of “Chicago-style theater” on the storefront scene, you owe it to yourself to see Playhouse’s North of Providence. Others try to pass off cheap hysterics as raw emotions; Playhouse gives you the real thing. The hour and a half you’ll spend on this startlingly fresh production may not make up for all the time you wasted watching the college-educated sons and daughters of privilege scream their way through ersatz blue-collar misery in the theater companies their daddies bankrolled, but it should reaffirm your belief in the devastating power of fully committed, emotionally uncompromising performances.

The odds against this production’s success were high. Playhouse used to be Tight & Shiny Productions, which ran out of faith and steam last March, after three years of generally well received productions. Months of uncertainty finally led to the group’s reorganization in Evanston as Playhouse, with the hope that the suburb would become a home where the company “could produce work that would clarify and reflect questions…relevant to that community.” The dream of every starry-eyed Northwestern theater major.

Playhouse performs in a cavernous rec room in the basement of Evanston’s Covenant Methodist Church, a block from Central Street’s Mayberry-esque strip, just west of Green Bay. Director and designer Eric Wegener has tried to create a cozy niche in the middle of this impersonal expanse by erecting two walls draped in black fabric. The actors appear in front of the walls, their playing area outlined by 16 metal folding chairs. There is no stage; the action takes place on the room’s dirty-dishwater linoleum tiles. Lit by half a dozen unfiltered lights mounted on towering metal pipes 20 feet from the nearest actor, the makeshift theater has all the charm and warmth of an operating room.

As if the technical limitations weren’t enough, Playhouse chose to produce two one-acts by Edward Baker that make for an evening of dreary, overwritten kitchen-sink melodrama steeped in romanticized despair. Delores and North of Providence are both from the same featureless mold: estranged siblings thrown together as a family crisis looms. In Delores the abused title character shows up in her sister Sandra’s kitchen sporting a fresh black eye, hoping to hide from her brutal husband. In North of Providence the headstrong Carol traps her waste-product brother Bobby in his bedroom, refusing to leave until he agrees to visit their penniless, alcoholic, terminally cirrhotic father in the hospital. All the characters can do, thanks to Baker’s lack of ingenuity, is argue, reminisce (“You remember us waiting in line with Ma for the welfare check?”), barf up painful confessions, and finally reconcile.

These plays slog about aimlessly, yet the cast–Heidi Huber, Brett A. Snodgrass, Carri Sullens, and Clara York–manage to turn them into riveting drama. Delores is the weaker of the two, if only because spouse abuse is too troubling a topic, and too often trivialized on TV, to survive Baker’s ham-handed treatment. Huber and York breathe about as much life into this exhausted script as one could imagine, generally opting for quiet intensity rather than histrionics. York’s performance as Sandra is particularly moving, as she struggles not to feel compassion for her traumatized sister. To take Delores into her home–in effect, to save her life–would not only invoke the wrath of Sandra’s own intolerant and abusive husband, but force her to admit that her passive acceptance of her own disastrous marriage renders her as pathetic as her self-destructive sister. Sandra’s struggle is absolutely heartbreaking to watch.

While Huber’s and York’s performances are wholly inspiring, the intensity of their relationship, critical to the piece, waxes and wanes. The same cannot be said for Snodgrass and Sullens in North of Providence; their emotional lives seem so intertwined it’s hard to believe they didn’t grow up together in the hyperbolically dysfunctional family their characters describe. These two actors play so well off each other, allowing themselves to respond using pure gut instinct, that they bring to life every mesmerizing nuance in their half-hour power struggle.

Much of the credit for this play’s success goes to Wegener’s careful direction. Screaming is kept to a minimum; tense stillness is exploited in its stead. By placing his actors literally a foot from the audience, Wegener ingeniously avoids the excess of so much theater in Chicago: The actors are forced to make strict, simple choices. Were they to explode all over the stage they would render this self-described chamber production incomprehensible, like a Who concert in an elevator. It comes as no surprise that the actors have a good deal of television and film experience, for they perform with the kind of economy a camera’s unflinching scrutiny demands.

The actors also intelligently play up the inadequacy of their language, constantly searching for a better way to put into words the enormity of their passions. This approach gives the actors rich inner lives–something is always going on behind their eyes–and continually pushes them forward as they correct and recorrect their words, hoping to gain some understanding of their predicaments. Instead of rolling around in anguish, they struggle to escape its clutches. In other words, they act like real people.

It’s a rare treat to see actors commit so fully to a play, reaching the emotional extremes most actors can only approximate through a lot of unnecessary and disingenuous posturing. Playhouse can sustain this level of commitment in their coming season, they may finally lead “Chicago-style theater” out of the artless mire where it has languished far too long.