A Blue Moon

Chicago Dramatists

The “how did I get here?” play is not exactly new. Indeed, portraits of middle-aged men were a staple of 20th-century theater; think of Death of a Salesman and The Iceman Cometh. Why, then, does Joel Drake Johnson’s A Blue Moon feel so fresh and prescient, like the first in a wave of pieces as baby boomers begin to receive their AARP cards in the mail?

Maybe because it’s about a woman at 50. Not a woman at 50 pathetically trying to recapture her youth with a younger man, not a woman at 50 battling to keep her husband from a younger woman, not even a woman at 50 bravely facing breast cancer. Just a woman at 50. Strange as it seems, more than 75 years after Mrs. Dalloway, it remains astonishing to devote an entire work of art to a middle-aged woman.

But while Virginia Woolf chose to communicate her revolutionary concerns using a revolutionary fictional structure, Johnson–a Chicagoan who’s been writing for 20 years–locates his work squarely within the dramatic tradition associated with male midlife crises. And if his evocation of existential dread lacks some of the resonance of Miller or O’Neill–well, worse things have been said of a playwright.

The setup is almost aggressively domestic: a day in the life of divorcee Carol, her teenage son, and her downstairs neighbors. Neighbor Nora fears that Carol, her oldest friend, is having a nervous breakdown, though the evidence is skimpy–Carol’s apartment is a mess, she’s sleeping on the couch, she cut her hair. But Carol’s troubles prove to be as basic, as existential, as any in Beckett. She can’t go on–with her father newly dead, her son sulking his way into adulthood–yet she goes on.

The play’s major strength, its portrait of life as it’s lived, is also the first act’s major weakness. There’s not enough background to make sense of the confrontations. When Carol and son Skip start screaming at each other about his regret at not living with his father, his desire to leave home, and his refusal to take a memento before his grandfather’s things are discarded, it comes out of nowhere.

Fortunately, A Blue Moon is one of those rare plays whose second acts are stronger than their first. Johnson seems to get a better purchase on both the causes and the consequences of Carol’s anomie, stringing together a series of touching scenes illustrating her deep connections to Skip, Nora, and Nora’s husband, Lewis. While the first act stays on the surface, devoted as it is to the everyday estrangements among people who’ve known each other all their lives, the second concentrates on their enduring love–and feels like bedrock. Johnson has a keen ear for the conversation of friends so close they’re almost family, especially its infuriating permeability: repeatedly, when Carol tells Nora something Skip wanted to keep secret, Skip returns the favor; when Nora tells Lewis one of Carol’s secrets, Carol returns the favor. More than a behavioral tic, this information leakage is a metaphor for the joys and perils of intimacy: when a friend gives you license to be yourself, you give her the same license, for better or worse.

Russ Tutterow’s direction clarifies these issues without oversimplifying them and gives his impeccable cast plenty of room for the surprises and contradictions that distinguish human beings from caricatures. As Carol, Annabel Armour makes vivid the feelings of a centered woman suddenly besieged: as she rests (or hides) on the couch, Armour gives us an almost physical sense of Carol’s desperate need to defend her space, to hold down the fort. She’s even persuasive in a one-sided phone conversation with her beau, though the device positively creaks. As Nora, Marguerite Hammersley complements Armour so well that it takes a while to decide whose play it is–also a feature of life among close friends. Hammersley has the courage to make Nora an intrusive, annoying person without leaving any doubt that she loves both her friend and her husband and that she’s doing the best she can. When Nora collapses on the couch after Lewis chases her with a stuffed lizard, her readiness for play to turn to lovemaking is written on her face, providing one of this production’s most affecting moments. Mark Ulrich manages to make Lewis credibly attractive to two powerful women despite, or perhaps because of, his impotence; he also communicates Lewis’s strong moral core as he accepts but refuses to act on his crush on Carol. And Philip Dawkins is all gawky arms and legs as man-child Skip, who one minute tells his mother to stay out of his life and the next comes home with a single touching word: “Mom?”

The second act is guaranteed to produce tears, as Nora recalls her childhood visit to Carol’s house or Skip tells his mother about seeming to regress as he watched her father die. Even Carol’s bright look of hope just before the lights go down is more moving than rousing: we understand that she’s not really facing a different world with more options, just her own world with more courage.

Joey Wade’s wonderful set design recalls his equally rich, detailed work in Steppenwolf’s Uncle Vanya–every aspect of Carol’s cluttered room, from the boxes of stuff for the Salvation Army to the tchotchkes in the alcoves, suggests a controlled person who’s lost control. And Michelle Lynette Bush’s costumes are perfect: Nora sports the shocking pink of an attention seeker while Carol wears the neutrals of someone trying to disappear. Neither character gets what she wants except for a brief moment–once in a blue moon.

We only get a moment to take stock before heading on with the rest of our lives. But thanks to sharp direction and a brilliant cast, A Blue Moon makes that moment worth catching.

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