A woman starts telling you the story of her life so far. She’s funny, charming, a little dry, and deeply, quietly sad. The more she talks—and the more that the men arrive from the theatrical ether to bitterly interrupt her—the more you get this feeling in the pit of your stomach. Terrible things have happened to her, all of them at the hands of men. In fact, they’ve been at the hands of these particular men, the ones who keep trying to talk over her—to tell her story in a way that doesn’t make them look like monsters. Like the frog in the proverbial pot, you don’t quite realize how much this woman has suffered at the hands of these men until the water is at full boil. Her disarming, conversational story has led you down to the sunny garden path and straight into hell—just like, once upon a time, she herself was led.
Welcome to Lela & Co., a bracing portrait of violence, misogyny and human trafficking, compliments of British playwright Cordelia Lynn, director Robin Witt and Steep Theatre, Chicago’s preeminent importers of U.K. plays. And of course the actors: Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel as Lela and Chris Chmelik as a series of increasingly horrible men. Both actors are fantastic, but Gonzalez-Cadel gives a performance that will linger in your memory. The preternatural calm and grace with which she unspools Lela’s tragical history only makes the moments where she breaks down in sorrow, anger and despair more powerful. Her performance, especially when mixed with the tart, witty brew of Lynn’s script, works on you like a drug, softly lulling you to sleep to reveal the most terrible nightmares.
Lynn’s script manages a trick that many plays fumble, which is to create a timeless and unspecified setting—one that has a real sense of place without ever dropping a pin down on the map. Lela is from an unspecified country, from an area where there are mountains, and she moves to the country next door to live with her sister and her brother-in-law. In this country, there is a war, one that her brother-in-law and his friend, Lela’s future husband, profit quite nicely from. There are foreign occupiers that create a “transition government” once the war is over. There are conflicts on the border and a thriving black market—an exchange on which Lela soon finds her body being bought and sold.
Witt has staged the show promenade style, filing the entirety of Steep’s space with chairs, couches and tables, save for a single playing space in the middle—one that will go unused until Lela is herself confined to a small room by her cruel husband turned pimp and captor. This setting (from designer Joe Schermoly) is a little retro, a little Euro, and more than a touch romantic. (Brandon Wardell’s dramatic, cabaret-style lighting design is moody and evocative.) Lela roams through the space, talking to the audience members directly, as though she really were just a woman in a cafe who’s been asked to tell her story. “Intimate” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in Chicago—more often than not serving as a too-kind euphemism for “small”—but Lela & Co. is one of few recent shows that has done the word any real justice.
Steep Theatre. By Cordelia Lynn. Directed by Robin Witt. With Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel, Chris Chmelik. Running time: 1hrs 40mins; no intermission.