Griffin Theatre Company at Raven Theater. By Ena Lamont Stewart. Directed by Robin Witt. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 40mins; two intermissions.
Theater review by Kris Vire
In Scottish playwright Ena Lamont Stewart’s bleak 1947 drama, set in Depression-era Glasgow, families pile on top of one another in crumbling tenements with too little money, little to eat and too little to hope for. Stewart’s play, not seen in the U.S. in 30 years and apparently never staged in Chicago before Robin Witt’s biting new production for Griffin Theatre Company, is the kind of large-cast, three-act, kitchen-sink drama that has a hard time getting done in today’s commercial theater (and Stewart’s rather off-putting title surely hasn’t helped in this specific instance).
But Griffin and Witt, together and separately, have infused these kinds of pieces with the kind of raw vitality that lets you imagine being in the audience that saw this milieu as its own time. Indeed, Stewart’s subjects, who lament that the only thing they did wrong to end up trapped in a vicious cycle of pain “was to be born into poverty,” is all too relatable to modern-day Chicago.
The play’s center is Maggie Morrison, played with fiery grace by Lori Myers, a much-missed actor last seen in Chicago in 2011’s Circle Mirror Transformation at Victory Gardens. Maggie is the matriarch of a sprawling brood, doing her best to watch over five children ranging from the grown and often drunk Alec (Curtis Jackson), who’s married to a woman who derides him and flirts with other men to make him jealous, down to the tubercular youngest, who’s unseen but (rather oddly) heard in voiceover from his bunk in a cupboard in Act I before being shunted off to hospital for the remainder of the play.
Maggie’s husband, John (Scot West), mostly mopes ineffectively about the lack of work and his inability to provide for his family, staying away from the house as much as possible out of guilt or shame, even though his love for Maggie and the children is palpable, in its way. John’s feelings of impotent failing manifest as a further lack of responsibility in being emotionally available and supportive.
You sense this is a chief source of that provocative title, as it’s the play’s many women seem to bear the brunt of sacrifice: Maggie Cain as John’s mother, shuffled among relatives in her old age and convinced she’s nothing more than a burden to them all; Ellie Reed as daughter Jenny Morrison, so desperate for a better life for her entire family she’s willing to stand up to her adoring daddy’s self-defeating principles; Katherine Banks as Maggie’s “spinster” sister Lily, put off the institution of marriage by her sibling’s predicament but doing her best to help out in a world where a tin of beans is a precious gift.
Things look so dismal for the Morrisons that when Act III seems to come with good news—a steady job for John, festive Christmas decorations and gifts, general cheer all around—you keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. Is Maggie’s husband robbing banks? Is there some expected inheritance that’s about to fall through, as in O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, with repo men about to show up and take back teenaged Ernie’s prized new wireless and Maggie’s too-fancy red chapeau?
Stewart, along with Witt and her extraordinarily truthful cast, have spent two acts making this level of poverty feel so pernicious and inescapable and real that you can’t imagine the misery isn’t about to return. Which, sadly, remains a timely empathy lesson for Chicago today.