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Chicago Stage Style

November 2011 Review by Lawrence Bommer

Assisted Living

The title of Deirdre O’Connor’s new work, "Assisted Living" takes on a broad new meaning in this affectionately rendered world premiere by busy Profiles Theatre.  Their “A Behanding in Spokane” continues a few blocks from The Second Stage.  Depicted with unashamed, old-fashioned caring, the four clumsy, questing characters in her 100 minute one-act are good for and to each other, though they don’t necessarily mean to all that much or know why they make a difference.  O’Connor offers a very grown-up drama about half-baked people whose embattled decency makes them recognizably, finally radiantly, human.

Anne Kelly (Stacy Stolts, “acting” only in the technical sense) is a single librarian, approaching 40 and now responsible for a demented, occasionally biting, 78-year-old mother who’s the reason they both need help.  Her hapless brother Jimmy is unreachable and she’s in over her head.  Hoping to land his first daytime rather than part-time job, young Levi (a delightfully real and sweetly gawky Jordan Stacey) applies for a job as a home care provider, though he knows he can mess up at a moment’s notice.

But slowly this former drinker and constant bumbler gains confidence and the invalid mother takes to him as, even more slowly, does wary Anne whom he even manages to romance with boyish improvisation.  When Levi says, “I’m only right here,” you realize just how long this sweet-faced caretaker has been wrong everywhere else.  But that doesn’t keep him from screwing up big time when he takes a stupid cigarette break.

The old house starts to fill up when, literally having nowhere to go, Jimmy (Layne Manzer, doubling down on the drifting brother) finally shows up, accompanied by his pregnant, 22-year-old girlfriend Christina (placidly purposeless Shannon Hollander) who regularly refers to her fetus as “the belly” and who needs every bit as much help as the elderly mother.

After assembling her diverse quartet, O’Connor is wise not to inject too much plot into what is really a set of very believable encounters.  Notably natural, the “action” consists of territorial troubles as brother and sister argue over whose house this is and whether Levi is doing more good than harm.  Pretty Levi in turn has learned to love being needed and to fondle the older Anne for giving him a chance.

It’s fascinating to watch how four flawed people, who individually managed to go wrong in more ways than they count, somehow counteract rather than exacerbate their mistakes just by coming together to create a second family and a new kind of “assisted living.”  Anne’s fear of leaving the home and dating strangers, Christina’s terror of being abandoned with “the belly,” Jimmy’s dread that drugs will take him down again and Levi’s worry that good intentions have never excused his unsought malfunctioning—here these drawbacks check each other and break a bunch of bad cycles.

Coming of age despite your age is all over the place on this busy, healing stage.  Few truths and fewer revelations are forced here; it all comes out as they move on.  Joe Jahraus’ cast, confidently shaped by the director even in their lack of assurance, is awesomely right from moment to moment.  Admittedly, already awkward characters are easy for actors to play since their hesitations can easily fit those of the characters.

For theatergoers who want incident and epiphanies this may seem thin gruel.  But, like “Marvin’s Room” (whose intimacies this often recalls), O’Connor’s domestic charmer is about how the intercom “squawk box” to an upstairs room can record both an old lady’s distress calls and those of an equally needy baby.  The trick is to assist that living and prove we’re alive as well.  For more information on this show, please visit the Theatre In Chicago Assisted Living page.

 

About Lawrence Bommer

A native Chicagoan, Lawrence Bommer has been an active free-lance writer and playwright since 1975.  For twenty years he wrote a weekly column, "Opening Nights" for the Friday section of the Chicago Tribune, where he also regularly contributed theater criticism and feature writing.  His work has appeared in Stagebill, the Pulitzer-Lerner newspapers and The Advocate.

Mr. Bommer was theater editor for the Windy City Times since its founding until 1999; from 1986 a theater critic for the Chicago Reader (where he has also written for the "Calendar" and "Our Town" sections); Chicago Free Press, where he was contributing editor until the paper’s demise in spring 2010; Chicago Footlights, where he has been a regular contributor; and Plays International, where he is the Chicago correspondent.  He has also contributed to the Hollywood Reporter, PerformInk, Screen Magazine, CitySearch, the Chicago Illini, Inside Chicago, Illinois Entertainer, the International Theatre Festival of Chicago newsletter, Plays International, CitySearch, Playbill Online, TheatreMania, CurtainUp.com and Chicago Enterprise.  Mr. Bommer is a three-time finalist for a Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism in the "arts criticism" category.  In 1991 he became a regular theater and, dance critic and arts writer for the Chicago Tribune.  His commentary has also aired on LesBiGay Radio, WGN and on Milwaukee Public Radio.

As a playwright, Mr. Bommer's work has been produced in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Madison and, in Chicago, by the Organic Theater Company (Jonathan Wild [1979], Poe [1980]. Gulliver's Last Travels [1993] and by Lionheart Gay Theatre (Gunsel, The Tyrannicides, Killers and Comrades).  Since 1976 Mr. Bommer has taught at the Francis W. Parker School and was a lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago from 1969 to 1975 (where he received his Master's degree in English), as well as a guest lecturer at the College of DuPage, Roosevelt University, DePaul University and the University of Chicago.  Mr. Bommer is a member of the American Theater Critics Association and has been a member of the National Writers Union and the Dramatists Guild.