Bailiwick Chicago at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater. Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Music by Stephen Flaherty. Directed by Lili-Anne Brown. With ensemble cast. 2hrs 20mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
Adapted from the novel by Sherley Anne Williams, which took two historical narratives about real women in the antebellum South and brought them fictionally togeher, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s 2005 musical makes some curious choices in structuring the story. Ruth (Harmony France) is a young white mother who begins tacitly harboring runaway slaves after her husband abandons her and their isolated northern Alabama estate. Dessa Rose (Sydney Charles) is a young black girl, pregnant and on the run after being sentenced to hang for inciting a slave rebellion.
Ahrens and Flaherty open their show with a declarative, direct-address number called “We Are Descended,” which seems to establish this as a story about women—particularly these two women—and how their bonds are what move us forward as a people. The entire cast, black and white (and outfitted in modern-day street clothes in director Lili-Anne Brown’s Bailiwick Chicago staging), lines the lip of the stage; “We are descended from a long, strong line of women,” they musically declare, before ditching their duds for pre-Civil-War-reenactor couture.
But the authors keep Ruth and Dessa’s stories separate for the entirety of Act I, then put them at each other’s throats for two-thirds of Act II; by the time the two actually establish a bond, you can feel the story easing to a stop just when it seems like it should be starting. The ensemble re-emerges in their clothes of today to congratulate us for eating our vegetables.
Still, structural issues aside, Bailiwick’s Chicago premiere is cooking up some damn tasty vegetables. Brown and musical director James Morehead have assembled a cast and band to squeeze every last drop of emotion out of Flaherty’s bright score, all inspirational swelling and harmonies, and they present it in a satisfyingly intimate staging upstairs at Victory Gardens. The likes of Jayson “JC” Brooks, Jasondra Johnson and Steven Perkins bring everything they’ve got vocally and leave it all on the stage. And Charles and France each imbue their characters with what seems like more nuance, detail and fire than they have on the page; these are uncommon women indeed.