Playwright: Jim Cartwright. At: No Stakes Theater Project at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 1-773-975-8150; www.theaterwit.org; $13.50-$34.50. Runs through: Sept. 5
Steppenwolf Theatre Company produced this play 21 years ago utilizing an enormous set with a moving house that swallowed the play alive. It still requires a two-story house ( Grant Sabin, set designer ) but this intimate stagingskillfully and intelligently directed by Erin Shea Bradyoffers a clearer look at quirky British playwright Jim Cartwright's work ( he's better known for his earlier play, Road ).
Set in a northern England city perhaps 30 years ago, the play pits mother against daughter in what becomes a triangle of selfish interests as the mother's boyfriend becomes involved. The mother, Mari ( played with brazen relish by Rebecca Sohn ), is the showy role, a working class slattern with a dead-end job and a perpetual hangover who values herself only for her fading physical and sexual attributes. A widow with nothing good to say about her late husband, Mari hardly acknowledges her teenage daughter, to the extent of literally having no food in their small house. The daughter, Little Voice or Elvie ( Scarlett Sheppard ), barely talks at all and then only in a whisper. Isolated by choice and emotionally stunted, she's sustained by listening obsessively to her dad's recordings of classic female vocalists such as Garland, Piaf and Holiday.
All this would be of little interest without a twist: when Little Voice sings, she can impersonate to perfection the vocal styles of all the greats. This grabs the attention of Mari's current boyfriend, Ray Say, a small-time entertainment promoter. He sees Little Voice as a potential star act with a big future. Trouble is, Elvie won't leave the house to go to the corner café, so how can Ray ( aggressively but sympathetically played by Will Casey ) and Mari persuade her to perform in public? Mari absolutely lacks any sensitivity or subtlety for the task, but Ray is more astute. Still, things don't end well for anyone, especially Mari who probably gets what she deserves. Little Voice escapes with help from a smitten young phone installer ( Johnathan Wallace ) nearly as uncommunicative as she is, but to what end is unclear.
The actor playing Little Voice must credibly impersonate the greats. Fortunately, Scarlett Sheppard has the chops and does dead-on soundalikes of a half-dozen notable vocalists. Her voice isn't huge but she's convincing and even astonishing at moments. The real difficulty with the play is that Little Voice is mainly a cypher. Who is she? At 15 or 16 she doesn't go to school, has no job, never leaves the house, has no friends and appears to have no real-world capabilities. The play may be a story of survival, with Mari at the end of a journey while Elvie is at a beginning, but Cartwright ultimately begs the question.