““I’m a person who doesn’t like summer or sunshine,” said Ellen Fairey, playwright and self-proclaimed melancholic.” opens a February 2010 nytimes.com article about then emerging playwright Ellen Fairey. For a woman with a decidedly pessimistic view of life, good fortune has certainly flooded her creative path. Chicago’s established Profiles Theatre booked her play Graceland before it was finished (her first work). Its popularity earned performance extension, which garnered her an agent who then sent the script to the director of LCT3, Lincoln Center Theater’s program for emerging artists, where it was booked at New York’s The Duke on 42nd Street. Ultimately it won a 2010 Jeff Award in Chicago as a new work. With that kind of early acclaim, one might think Fairey would emerge as a hip version of Little Mary Sunshine.
L.I.P. Service presents Graceland, set in and near a Chicago cemetery of that name, at the Firehouse Theatre in Farmers Branch, running through November 18th. Respected stage and film actor, playwright and published novelist Van Quattro directs the quirky play, which lasts a tad over an hour. Quattro has assembled a strong, versatile cast and makes solid use of them, given the first-time work’s brevity and muddled arcs. Certain script elements don’t pass the credibility meter. Sitcom, farce-styled coincidences hurtle unexpectedly into somber subject matter and thematic material. Was Fairey trying to write a sitcom story with some depth, or a dark drama with shoehorned-in comic relief? The occasional noisy intrusion of Blue Angel jet flyovers relate to nothing in the script. As a first play Graceland feels tentative, rough, abrupt; a second act could have added powerful dimension and finish, given the talented cast a chance to explore nuance and create better-defined arcs. This play is more of a promising, quixotic appetizer than a satisfying meal.
The acting and direction make this production work as worthy artistic entertainment. Cast as a sister/brother duo reuniting at the funeral of their estranged father, a suicide, Emily Scott Banks and R. Andrew Aguilar establish from their first moment the easy, bantering familiarity of siblings. Their bond carries them though the show, transcending plot line peculiarities, and establishes in the work its cleanest arc. Both actors possess a natural confidence that carries the audience with them on their respective journeys. Similarly, Andrew Kasten as Joe, the mature man Banks’ character Sara has a one night fling with, and Miles Alexander as his precocious teen-aged son, “feel” like family. Joe lacks depth as written, but Van Quattro’s direction and Kasten’s instincts help to add dimension where there isn’t much to play with. Miles Alexander’s character is both the most interesting and least believable of the ensemble. The young actor carries it well, with occasional moments where he confuses line delivery speed with energy and is hard to understand. Even though his actions seem contrived for effect more than entirely believable, he follows his director’s intent with grit and focus and uses the stage as comfortably as the more experienced adults in the ensemble. Elizabeth Kensek rounds out the cast as the object of several related characters’ attentions, almost as an afterthought.
Jason Leyva’s open, dual level set design makes economical use of the long but narrow venue space without cumbersome set changes. Actors can step in and out of outdoor v. interior scenes without delay or story interruption.
Overall, Graceland is the cleanest, most sophisticated production this critic has seen yet mounted by L.I.P. Service at the Firehouse Theatre venue. Kudos to a company that takes risk on unusual works and to Van Quattro as director for steering the play away from over-emphasizing its light comic elements and allowing the work’s humanity to shine through.
For tickets visit lipserviceproductions.info
Graceland runs through November 18th at the Firehouse Theatre in Farmers Branch.