City Lit Theater Company

at the Chicago Cultural Center

I sometimes wonder if Northwestern University speech professor Robert Breen ever dreamt, when he first began experimenting with methods of transferring fiction to the stage in the late 40s, that Chicago theater would one day be clotted with dozens of stage versions of literary classics, all of them variations–conscious or not–on his Chamber Theater style. A lot of these adaptations are just plain awful. A defilement of Camus’ The Stranger last year leaps immediately to mind–nothing of Camus’ work beyond the arc of his odd story survived: man’s mother dies, man shoots Arab on beach, man is hanged.

Every once in a while, however, a production comes along that shows why these adaptations have become so popular. Such a show is City Lit’s sublime evening of five stories by the late Laurie Colwin, Oh, Art! Oh, Memory! Kathryn Gallagher (who adapted and directed four of the stories) and Tina Thuerwachter (who adapted and directed one) come very close to realizing Breen’s dream of a hybrid of literature and drama that combines the immediacy and “simultaneity” of drama with fiction’s “narrative privilege”–the ease with which writers of fiction can switch points of view and voices, something not even cinema, with its infinite number of camera angles, can equal.

The union of drama and fiction has been City Lit’s mission from the start. But not since Raymond Carver: The Hero’s Journey, Mark Richard’s adaptation of Carver’s poetry two and a half years ago, has this company succeeded so well at putting together a show that is both faithful exploration of an author’s work and an integrated piece of theater.

Of course Colwin’s finely crafted stories helped. Filled as they are with witty narration and vivid, utterly believable characters, they’re virtually ready-made for the stage. With a single economical line, the opening line to “The Achieve of, the Mastery of the Thing”–“Once upon a time, I was Professor Thorne Speizer’s stoned wife, and what a time it was”–she grabs the reader’s attention, then satisfies and even exceeds all expectations over the following 24 pages.

Even fine writers can suffer in the hands of fools, however. Which is why I admire all the more the skillful way Gallagher and Thuerwachter have chosen to stage Colwin’s stories. All of the actors read from scripts set on music stands on an essentially bare stage supplied with only the barest essentials–a few small props, a few telling accessories, an ascot, a psychedelic shirt. Each adaptation thus depends completely on Colwin’s words and the actors’ ability to bring them to life–something they do with disarming proficiency. In fact this show is that rare bird, the non-Equity theater production with a uniformly strong and well rehearsed cast.

There is no weak link in this ensemble. Whether the piece being performed involves five actors, as in Colwin’s comical look at emerging sexuality among adolescent girls, “Delia’s Father,” or only two, as in the long “Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object,” about a young woman coping with the sudden death of her husband, the actors work together with a polish and intelligence and sheer joy in performing that I wish were a lot more common in Chicago than they are.


Writers’ Theatre-Chicago

at Books on Vernon

Intelligence, polish, and joy are in abundance too in My Own Stranger, Marilyn Campbell and Linda Laundra’s impressionistic two-act montage of Anne Sexton’s poetry and collected letters. But sometimes intelligence and joy are not enough, especially when the work is as relentlessly hysterical as this one.

Clearly there must be some hysteria in a play about poor Anne Sexton, who went through nervous breakdowns, suicide attempts, and eventually the breakup of her marriage yet managed to write some pretty amazing poetry before she succeeded in killing herself in 1974. However, three flat-out hysterical scenes are more than enough for any play.

Unfortunately, the way Campbell and Laundra have structured their adaptation–the first act follows Sexton’s rise to prominence as a poet, the second her decline and eventual suicide–virtually guarantees that the whole second act will be performed either at fever pitch or in preparation for the next rant. It doesn’t help that the actresses who play the three faces of Anne–Campbell, Penelope Milford, and Gretchen Sonstroem–have voices powerful enough to fill a full theater yet are performing in a beautiful but tiny space in the back of a Glencoe bookstore.

Perhaps these emotional peaks would have been easier to take if Campbell and Laundra had not fashioned an expressionistic series of moments but had forged a strong story out of Sexton’s writing. As it is, you need to know more than a little about Sexton’s life and work–her late coming to poetry, in her 20s; her upper-class housewife’s life; her predilection for emotional excess–to understand what’s happening onstage.

My Own Stranger contains plenty of beautiful passages from Sexton’s poetry and prose, notably a moving letter she wrote to her daughter in the late 60s. In this haunting letter she speaks of her life as if it had all but ended: “I’ve had a good life–I wrote unhappy–but I lived to the hilt.” Watching these three fine actresses make Sexton’s words sing, laugh, and weep, I couldn’t help wishing the adaptation were worthy of their fine performances.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.