Chicago Theater Review: THE LARK (Promethean Theatre Ensemble at Athenaeum Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on January 27, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

AN EXALTATION OF LARK

We all know Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, Another Part of the Forest, and The Children’s Hour, even the 1977 film Julia, based on her book Pentimento. But The Lark is easily the playwright’s least characteristic work. Perhaps that’s because this history play is a 1955 adaptation of L’Alouette, a 1953 saint’s tribute by the great Jean Anouilh. The result is a fruitful collaboration that fuses French lyricism and American straight talk. Unashamedly idealistic and uncompromising, both authors suit their story as they recreate the passion of Joan of Arc, the maid of Orleans.

Peter Eli Johnson, Brendan Hutt, John Walski, and Kimberly Logan

Inescapably, Joan, witnessed on her final day of life, is a martyr much in the tradition of Anouilh’s Antigone and Becket (her lonely bravery can easily be connected with Hellman’s own much-hyped confrontation with the House on Un-American Activities Committee.) The trial of this peasant girl from Domremy is a literal 1430 witch hunt of this “dirty virgin sorceress” (as persecuting Warwick, the British bulldog, delicately puts it). This set-up provides the springboard for both psychologically penetrating flashbacks and a debate over whether Joan embodies the curse of pride or the power of faith. Or is hers just a case history in auditory hallucinations leading from Domremy to Orleans to Rheims to Rouen in one glorious delusion of grandeur after another, ending in a martyrdom that disturbs us still as it did George Bernard Shaw (whose Saint Joan will soon be revived by ShawChicago)?

Peter Eli Johnson and Aila Peck

As Anouilh uses the trial for Joan to reenact her rise from milking cows to engineering a coronation, his psychological insights and telling details make us contemporaries to the characters. Several Joans claim our attention, if not adoration: The ecstatic teenager who, led on by her voices (mainly Saints Catherine and Michael), cajoles and flatters her way to the Dauphin; the celestial cheer-leader and high-pressure salesperson who literally encourages this eldest son of the king of France; and the French resistance fighter who refuses to recant (“You must first strike and then pray”). When she rebels against women’s wear, it’s because no one knows better how much clothes make the man. Nor does she deny her supposedly girlish fears—she thrives on them: “Only the stupid are not afraid.”

Meghann Tabor and Kimberly Logan

Rich with attractive androgyny and sometimes red-eyed with tears, Aila Peck delivers a human-sized Joan, her forthright American acting complementing Hellman’s no-nonsense dialogue. Peck’s defiance of the tribunal feels rooted in a teenage girl’s astonishment at the sheer stubbornness of grownups to right what’s right.

Brian Pastor and Brian Parry

John Arthur Lewis’ low-budget, high-intensity staging surrounds Joan with crafty contrasts. Wimpy and winsome, Peter Eli Johnson makes the strategically foolish and infuriatingly fickle bastard Dauphin an object of pity who needs a saint more than he knows. Compare her confidence with his fearfulness, and the arbitrariness of sexual stereotypes never seemed so blatant.

Aila Peck and John Walski

Almost making Joan a secular humanist, the Inquisitor (Nick Lake) declares that the real danger that Joan represents isn’t blasphemy but “natural man.” Joan is the first existentialist, it seems, measuring miracles solely in terms of human accomplishment. Mr. Lake is cold as a polar vortex who, worse than the Devil, won’t bother to buy souls when he can crush them. Brian Pastor’s ruthless warrior Warwick personifies English intransigence, while a true believer played by John Walski suggests the contagious loyalty that Joan inspired. Brian Parry valiantly tries to “save” her soul as the anguished Bishop of Beauvais, while Brendan Hutt and Brian Hurst convey the awakened soldier-patriots who soon found Joan to be a kindred soul.

Brendan Hutt, Aila Peck, Brian Pastor, and Brian Hurst

Contrasting with the director’s stark set, Rachel M. Sypniewski’s medieval/ecclesiastical costumes are as wonderful in detail as in design.

Brian Hurstphotos by Tom McGrath

The Lark
Promethean Theatre Ensemble
Studio One at the Athenaeum Theater
2936 N Southport Ave.
scheduled to end on Feb. 22, 2014
for tickets call 773-935-6875
or visit www.prometheantheatre.org

for info on this and other Chicago Theater,
visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

{ 2 comments }

Brian Parry February 5, 2014 at 9:01 am

Thanks for the kind words. In the interests of accuracy, I play the Bishop of Beauvais, while it is John Walski who plays the loyal true believer.

Tony Frankel February 5, 2014 at 10:08 am

Thanks for letting us know, Brian. The changes have been made.

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