Route 66 Theatre Company at Greenhouse Theater Center. By Jerre Dye. Directed by Erica Weiss. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Dan Jakes
This isn't the first time Erica Weiss has been called in to exorcise ghosts. Vigils, Noah Haidle’s nonlinear, poetic one-act about a fallen firefighter haunting his widow and being haunted in return, saw an eerie, touching revival staged by the Route 66 associate artistic director at the Gift Theatre last season. And though her company's 2011 landmark production of A Twist of Water was apparition-free in the literal sense, Chicago's bygone generations echoed in Caitlin Montanye Parrish’s drama and resonated as powerfully as the central present-day family they inspired. In a Weiss production, the lives and voices inside characters' minds are just as active and powerful as the characters onstage, and it shows.
In Jerre Dye's Cicada, Lily (Amy Matheny), a single mother in rural Mississippi, might be Weiss's most cluttered mental hoarder yet. Set in a sweltering, decaying house—even the walls are parched in Brian Sidney Bembridge's set and lighting design—Lily struggles to maintain normalcy for her 17-year-old son Ace (Aaron Kirby) after the passing of his father (Josh Bywater). She's tasked with raising him alone, mostly. Along and inside the home's wooden walls, memories or ghosts of deceased family—in Weiss's production, it's a dubious distinction, because their effect is the same—give reminders of their existence, resonating like aftershocks that comfort and torture at the same time.
Dye, a Tennessee native who originally workshopped the semi-autobiographical Cicada in 2009 at Memphis's Voices of the South, handles Southern mythos and romanticism with both affection and skepticism. As a neighbor with ghost troubles of her own, LaNora (Cecelia Wingate, bringing the sort of proud hardness so ubiquitous south of the Mason-Dixon line) discusses weeds as a stand-in for memories' resiliency and stubbornness—beautiful and small, they pop up everywhere, and the roots run deep.
In lesser hands, Dye's monologue-heavy play runs the risk of covering similar ground repeatedly (if it weren't for moving performances by Wingate and Robert Breuler, some of the supporting characters could read as redundant), but an exceptional women-driven cast finds the nuances of each piece. As mother and son, Matheny and Kirby create a bond made even more convincing by its dissonance. Codependent but yearning for more, Kirby reconciles his character's suffocation in his rural surroundings with his desire to keep his mom afloat. Letting go, Dye and Weiss demonstrate, is much more difficult when you're not the only one holding on.