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■ B5

Don't miss sultry production of 'Ladyhouse Blues'



Undaunted by last night's paltry turnout, director Lanney Steele and his five-woman cast lit up the stage.

It would be little short of a crime if the River of Understanding Ensemble’s production of “Lady-house Blues” wound up as Ann Arbor theater’s best-kept secret of 1988.

For the fortunate seven customers (yours truly included) who found their way to last evening’s opening at Performance Network, Kevin O’Morrison’s 1976 memory play was revealed as a show worth its weight in emotional gold. Though it’s not exactly a buried theatrical treasure (having prompted at least two major stagings in the last decade), “Ladyhouse Blues’ ” mode of swarthy, homely realism instantly eclipses the gimmick-ridden expressionism of most of its Broadway contemporaries.

Undaunted by last night’s paltry turnout, director Lanney Steele and his five-woman cast lit up the stage in a production fully worthy of America’s potent tradition of family drama. Set in lower-middle-class St. Louis in the sultry summer of 1919, “Ladyhouse Blues” dramatizes the efforts of the surviving female members of an Irish-American family to make ends meet, both financially and emotionally.

“Ladyhouse” is the semi-derogatory name applied by mailmen to homes whose men have either died or gone off to war. With Papa long dead and the son and brother yet to return from Europe after The Great War, the Madden family’s women cope with assorted pressures endemic to a new American era. Cunningly, O’Morrison has set his drama on the cusp of an age of destabilizing change - in standards of living, in global communications, especially in the surging ideal of women’s liberation.

Thus “Ladyhouse’s” protagonists are required to function both as symbols of social upheaval and as loving, hurting human beings. Blissfully, O’Morrison brings off this double dimension without a hitch: his women are ingratiatingly real (You feel you know each one by show’s end) without lapsing into archness or sentimentality.

At one end of the ideological spectrum towers family matriarch Liz (Yarrow Halstead), a folksily dominating earth mother whose oft-xenophobic conservatism (“Sarah Bernhardt was a foreigner??") extends to newfangled household machinery (she gags at the thought of owning a telephone), and especially to old-time religion, which she pursues with the doomsday fervor of a modern charismatic (“We’re livin’ in the end of our days”).

At the other end stands second-youngest daughter Terry (Jen Stollman), a novice political firebrand who’s just been elected a local delegate to the first World Congress of Working Women (Bolshevik nonsense, huffs Mom). Backing Terry to the hilt is 16-year-old Eylie (Kari Mason), who’s bursting with the first flush of sexual giddiness and can’t wait to run off with her new-found Greek boyfriend on his tuna boat.

Caught in the emotional crossfire are eldest siblings Helen (Chris Hall) and Dot (Jenny Parker), who are wracked with crushing problems of their own. Stricken with tuberculosis, forcing her exile from her husband and son, Helen has turned angry and bitter, ready to lash out at everyone from her sisters to the street-vendors hawking their wares outside the Madden flat.

What’s so deeply ingratiating about “Ladyhouse Blues” is O’Morrison’s rigid resistance to caricature. Even Liz, for all her stereotyped jingoism and foolishness, is a determined survivor boasting heroic strength and love for her very disunited brood. When our matriarch dreamily recalls her bucolic days as a farm wife (the Maddens spring from Arkansas hill-folk stock), she could easily pass for “Glass Menagerie’s” Amanda Wingfield musing on her gala evenings of gentlemen callers.

So rich in character are “Lady-house’s” women – who run the emotional gamut from savage verbal lacerations to loving musical quartets – that they help grease the play through some cliche-ridden rough spots: Should financially-strapped Liz sell off the now-barren Madden farm, thus forever severing the family from both the land and their heritage (shades of “The Cherry Orchard”)? Should social-climber Dot accept her working-class roots? Will unseen prodigal son Bud ever return from Germany to reassert himself as head of the household?

Such semi-stale crises don’t really sully a play like “Ladyhouse Blues,” a theatrical mood piece in which atmospheric accoutrements like old-time hymns and the cries of street-vendors (“I got cabbages, I got sweet, fresh cream!!”) stoke the play every bit as much as a given plot twist. Director Steele and his actresses seem to understand this perfectly. Their “Ladyhouse” shimmers with the kerosene glow and lullaby pace of a dreamy American epic, by turns lovingly funny and harrowingly sad, as soft and lyrical as anything penned by Williams or O’Neill in their more sanguine moments.

Certainly it’s an actors’ showcase beyond compare. Kari Mason’s Eylie is the gawky epitome of pubescent impatience and insecurity, while Jen Stollman’s Terry is a marginally yet crucially older version of the same turbulent forces (you sense she might really become a socio/political mover and shaker). Chris Hall is vibrantly, wrenchingly sad as Helen, whose terminal illness has slowly withered her emotions into a those of a small-minded scold. Most intriguing is Jenny Parker’s Dot who, beneath her veneer of lower-class inferiority, clearly seems the strongest, wisest sibling of the entire brood.

Best of all is Yarrow Halstead’s Liz: For all her matriarch’s eccentricities and creaky homilies, Halstead’s matriarch is too loaded with mingled anger and love, too heroic in her save-my-children endurance to ever turn ludicrous. Confronted by tragedy near play’s end, Liz waits until the others have left the house to vent her grief. When she ultimately erupts in howling protest to an inscrutible God (“I ain’t no Job!!!”), you feel her grief on an almost Biblical level.

Taken alone, such acting merits far more than an audience of seven. Taken as a scintillating whole, “Ladyhouse Blues” merits a full house each and every night of its all-too-short run (this weekend and next). Does anyone in this allegedly theater-happy town care?



The River of Understanding Ensemble presents 'Ladyhouse Blues' by Kevin O'Morrison. Lanney Steele, director; James Colvin, set design; Darren Ayers, costume design; James Colvin and Jo Broughton, lighting design; Wesley Warren, sound. Cast  includes Yarrow Halstead, Chris Hall, Jenny Parker, Jen Stollman and Kari Mason. 'Ladyhouse Blues' will be presented through Jan. 31 at Performance Network. 408 W. Washington. For ticket information call 663-0681.