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THEATER REVIEW L'Imitation of Life
by Kerry Reid
2018-04-08

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Playwright: Ricky Graham with Running with Scissors, adapted from the film Imitation of Life

At: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-327-5252; HandbagProductions.org; $29-$34. Runs through: May 6

Douglas Sirk's storied run of lush cinematic melodramas ended with 1959's Imitation of Life, starring Lana Turner and Juanita Moore as two single mothers in New York—one white and striving to be a Broadway star, the other Black and just hoping to find a home for herself and her light-skinned daughter, who resents being trapped in a "Black" identity. Of course, the white woman shoots to the top, while the Black woman is consigned to the role of long-suffering housekeeper and confidant.

The film was Turner's comeback from the 1958 stabbing death of her mobster boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, by her 14-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane. The death was ruled justifiable homicide, but the scandal lingered.

That story forms one of many meta running gags in Hell in a Handbag's L'Imitation of Life, a remount of the company's 2013 parody of Turner, Sirk and problematic racial tropes masquerading as social awareness. I missed the earlier incarnation, but Stevie Love's staging, despite a few pacing hiccups here and there, provides a fantastic vehicle for Ed Jones as Turner and Robert Williams as Annie Johnson, her housekeeper.

When I say "fantastic vehicle," imagine a pink Cadillac Eldorado convertible with chrome for days. Jones' Lana ( the script strips away the film character's name ) parades around in a narcissistic fog, never remembering Annie's name, literally using people as coat-racks, and jumping from man to man at the drop of a gauche evening gown ( credit to costumer Gary Nocco ). "You're not cheap," one of her paramours tells her. "You're drastically marked down."

Williams, meantime, balances these excesses with perfectly timed nonverbal hints of exasperation for Annie, whose workload grows as Lana's star rises. Katherine Bellantone brings warped pixie charm to Suzie Turner, her mother's Mini-Me who keeps a collection of knives and lusts after Mom's pedophilic boyfriend, Steve Martin ( "Not that Steve Martin" ), played with greasy insouciance by Chazie Bly.

A montage at the top of the second act juxtaposes Jones' face on actual Hollywood fan rags with images from the Jim Crow era, reminding us that Sirk's film was already headed toward relic-of-another-age status when it was released during the heating up of the civil rights movement. It also reminds us that Hollywood's relationship to social justice has always had a whiff of the self-serving and hypocritical.

But the played-for-laughs histrionics go down a notch at the end, as Ashley Hicks' prodigal daughter, Sara Jane ( who ran away to pursue her own show-biz dreams ) returns and brings out the earnest ( if still somewhat operatic ) emotions that Sirk unabashedly utilized in his work. It moves L'Imitation of Life from camp to homage—and it works.


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