Hidden Stages

Hidden Stages has a wonderfully intimate theater space. Tucked away on the fourth floor of an industrial building off Cermak in the no-man’s-land between Chinatown and Pilsen, it’s the perfect venue for a late-evening play–and the excellent jazz that’s played there every weekend. Would that the company had chosen a less pedestrian play than Eugene Varnado’s two-character drama Save the Last Dance for Me to grace its exquisite space.

Varnado’s “unique, intimate African-American play” opens as Dina prepares to return to her husband in Evanston after a rendezvous with her lover Perry. Varnado focuses on Dina’s struggle to balance the safety of her cushy suburban existence with the mad, unfettered passion she experiences with Perry, who pleads with her to follow her desires, ditch her husband, and take up with him. The play’s conflict hinges on the age-old musical question posed some years back by the Clash: “Should I stay or should I go?”

The question might be more intriguing if Varnado had given us fully developed characters instead of the generic, cliche-spouting lovers on display here. Perry is your standard embittered young man, channeling his frustration with society’s injustices into an anger that might be more understandable if it weren’t so entwined with sexism. Perry’s displeasure with what he sees as the genocide inflicted on urban black males is justified, but such assertions as “Black women, they force us to kick their ass” undercut his political statements.

Dina is somewhat more appealing, but Varnado has given her less a set of believable characteristics than a compendium of knee-jerk reactions to Perry’s statements. She’s never developed to the point where we can understand what it is she sees in Perry, or for that matter in her offstage white-bread husband. Even she can’t seem to figure it out. “Other than sex, what do we have in common?” she asks Perry at one point. After she’s been pinned down on the bed by him and he tells her that her amorous cravings are little more than a hunger for his “Mississippi black snake” (far more luscious than her hubby’s north Evanston white snake, we’re led to assume), the only insult she can come up with is “insensitive jerk.”

Varnado offers some well-meaning social commentary and some well-written dialogue, but because his characters are so flat Perry and Dina’s repartee comes off as little more than sloganeering, and not particularly original at that. “You’re at war with the world,” Dina tells Perry at one point, to which he responds that “the world is at war with me.” And when Varnado finally informs us that Dina’s reason for choosing her husband instead of Perry has been a lack of self-esteem, he strains not only credibility but the boundaries of political correctness. Only when Perry takes Dina over to his mirror and shows her how attractive she is does she succumb to his dubious charm.

As the lovers, WVON talk-show host Deborah J. Crable and veteran Chicago actor Senuwell Smith do a perfectly adequate job under Donn Carl Harper’s direction. Smith is particularly effective, getting some laughs with his character’s sexual bravado and achieving some moments of poignancy with Perry’s description of his alcoholic father. But unfortunately neither Smith nor Crable can compensate for the inconsistencies in their characters. One is never sure whether Varnado intends Perry to be a sexist pig or a misunderstood, neglected child disguising his pain with machismo. And Crable does not manage to make sense of the script, which forces her to swing implausibly from one mood to another. It’s not that the actors can’t grasp these complex characters, but that the playwright needs to rework the script, give it a better pacing and logic. Then his play might live up to the atmosphere Hidden Stages has created.

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