Chicago Theater Review: ASSISTED LIVING (Profiles)

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by Dan Zeff on November 12, 2011

in Theater-Chicago

PROFILES OF A DREARY EXISTENCE

The Profiles Theatre has carved out an essential niche for itself on the local Chicagoland theater scene with sexy, violent, and edgy modern dramas. Recently, playwright Deirdre O’Connor gave Profiles one of its major hits with Jailbait, about a pair of teen-aged girls who venture into the adult world of club-hopping. The world premiere of O’Connor’s Assisted Living, now on at Profiles’ alternate venue The Second Stage, has the company taking on a more low-keyed route in exploring four characters who desperately need to get a life.

Assisted Living by Deirdre O’Connor at Profiles Theatre Second Stage – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

The people in Assisted Living don’t have any real social life; they are trapped by both circumstance and character flaws into a dreary day-to-day existence that points to futures as bleak as their collective present. As such, there isn’t much physical action in the 95 minute play, which may not interest some viewers who could grow weary of the commonplace characters and their drab lives.

However, a more sympathetic spectator will get emotionally involved and find the play full of warmth and understanding as O’Connor’s creations try to fight their way to some satisfaction in their lives. There are plenty of raised voices that go round and round in bursts of Chekhovian frustration and resentment, fruitlessly looking for love and a meaningful place in the world.

The core character is lonely Anne (Stacy Stoltz), a librarian approaching 40 who is saddled at home with a quarrelsome elderly mother in the early stages of dementia (the fractious mother is an off-stage voice that squawks through a baby monitor). The younger brother Jimmy (Layne Manzer), a loser with zero sense of responsibility, is a drag on the already overburdened Anne, who has no boyfriend and a biological clock which is ticking away – she has “stereotyped spinster” written all over her. Jimmy has a pregnant girl friend, the sweet and innocent Christina (Shannon Hollander), who has been ostracized by her parents for getting in the family way with an irresponsible layabout.

Enter Levi (Jordan Stacey), a young ex-alcoholic who has “loser” written all over him, applying as a nurse for Anne’s mother. Lonesome Levi and Anne develop an improbable sexual relationship that earns the disapproval of Jimmy, who has his own problems. None of the characters, even the feckless Jimmy, is a bad person: they just have an inability to make their lives work as they are thrown by a meld of bad luck and personal weakness. (O’Connor shows her hapless characters a bit of mercy by the end of the play, with indications that life might be a little more supportable for all four, though probably not by much.)

Stacy Stoltz is perfect as Anne, a woman stretched to the limit by the demands of an ailing mother, a troublesome brother, and a social and professional life going nowhere. Yet there is spunk in the woman and a determination to hold things together. Jordan Stacey does a fine job of humanizing the geeky and ineffectual Levi; he even convinces the viewer that he can romance the older and wary Anne, which is a considerable achievement. Both actors bring just the right amount of rueful warmth in later scenes.

Assisted Living by Deirdre O’Connor at Profiles Theatre Second Stage – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

Layne Manzer has the toughest job in the ensemble, trying to convince the audience that Jimmy is anything more than a thoughtless, self-centered jerk. Jimmy may have the looks and superficial social skills to woo a vulnerable girl like Christina, but O’Connor has given his character moments of pain and self-revelation. Manzer creates a young man who may not gain our acceptance but at least he touches our understanding.

Shannon Hollander is a total charmer as the big-bellied Christina, who manages to sustain her optimism in the future even though she’s been rejected by her parents and is tied to a man with no track record for success in life.

While the play itself may elicit contrasting reactions, nobody can say a word against the pinpoint casting and superior performances. Connoisseurs of sensitive acting and insightful, sure-handed direction will get a lot of pleasure from this production. Joe Jahraus orchestrates the evening with an understated intelligence that makes this somewhat problematical play succeed as human drama instead of soap opera.

The new Second Stage is a solid facility for intimate plays like Assisted Living. The theater may be small but it seems to be technically well equipped, leaving all the designers a chance to shine: David Ferguson’s functional set effectively accommodates the action in both Anne’s kitchen and a hospital waiting room, Bekki Lambrecht designed the lighting, Erica Griese the costumes, and Jeffrey Levin is responsible for the sound and the original music. Restroom availability may be a challenge and parking is a game of chance, but that’s all part of the storefront theater experience in Chicago. The play remains the thing, and this production of Assisted Living is a good one.

photos by Wayne Karl

Assisted Living
Profiles Theatre
ends on December 18, 2011
for tickets, visit Profiles

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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