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THEATER REVIEW The Two Character Play
by Mary Shen Barnidge

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Playwright: Tennessee Williams

At: Theatre L'acadie at the Athenaeum, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Tickets: $25; and 773-935-6875. Runs through: March 29

[NOTE: Audiences for performances will be limited due to COVID-19. Contact the venue, as information about venues is constantly changing.]

The setting of The Two Character Play is a post-bellum mansion in the Deep South surrounded by sunflowers "as tall as the house."

It is presently occupied by an adult brother and sister living in seclusion following the trauma of their astrology-obsessed father killing first, their mother, and then himself. Ever since that fatal night, Clare has become increasingly unnerved by the hostile curiosity of the neighbors, as well as the memories lurking in the silence of empty rooms. Her terror of being left alone has forced Felice to keep vigil at her side, even as their money dwindles and public aid agencies make vain attempts to offer assistance.

This is what we are told, anyway. What we see is a bare stage littered with sundry theatrical paraphernalia, the only vestige of the anticipated evening's production being a few rehearsal-grade furnishings and the two remaining touring-company members who, coincidentally, share the characters' names. The rest of the troupe, it emerges, have abandoned the playwright-actor-producer siblings after declaring them both "insane!" To pass the time while waiting in the unheated playhouse for its doors to be unlocked in the morning, they seek escape from their predicament through immersion in their art—"getting lost in the play" in Felice's words—in order to affirm their filial bond and its role in lending their lives purpose.

Now is probably an appropriate time to note that the author of both our play and our play-within-a-play is Tennessee Williams, whose mentally fragile sister we have met before. To be sure, these are not the young waifs of The Glass Menagerie ( though a rainbow-hued soap bubble provides a similar image of transcendent beauty ), but more a late-career portrait of artists haunted by the existential torpor that threatens to eclipse their creative genius. Clare even invokes the famous first line of Beckett's Waiting For Godot at one point.

Playgoers likewise apprehensive at the prospect of confronting vacant theaters need not fear growing similarly despondent, however. Theatre L'acadie, while still relatively new to the Chicago Theater scene ( this is only its second local production ), has forged a reputation for intricate text analysis that leaves no dictional, syntactical or rhetorical nuance unexamined. Under the direction of Kaitlin Eve Romero, Daniel Westheimer and Emily Daigle establish, from the very outset, a brisk and varied pace that never succumbs to the self-indulgent mannerisms their clownish Joey-and-Gamine attire invites, but instead disregard fourth-wall barriers to forge a dynamic intensifying their connection with us during every second of the 135-minute ( one intermission ) performance time.

Unforeseen real-life emergencies in Chicago might make for extra down-time in the weeks to come, but for now, the Athenaeum is still in operation and theatergoers will assuredly find in this long-forgotten classic—a sympathetic refuge from the darkness of an uncertain universe.

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