Chicago Theater Review: THE COMMONS OF PENSACOLA (Northlight Theatre in Skokie)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 21, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


A Midwest premiere by Northlight Theatre, Amanda Peet’s topical domestic drama The Commons of Pensacola isn’t exactly about Bernie Madoff’s unimprisoned wife nor how her family deals with disgrace. But as inspired speculation, it will do—at least until a tell-all Ruth Madoff exposé comes along. Apart from dramatizing the collateral damage wreaked by a Ponzi scheme gone toxic, it works as a depiction of Lusia Strus and Leah Karpel in THE COMMONS OF PENSACOLA at Northlight Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.denial and a show of survivor guilt. (The situation here would equally fit children of Nazi collaborators and relatives of war criminals.) In 90 minutes, Peet airs a lot of dirty laundry—perhaps too much: She includes a gratuitous scene of sexual infidelity to balance the father’s financial betrayal.

A newly frugal, formerly wealthy matron, Judith (Linda Kimbrough), is the 71-year-old wife of a capital criminal. She’s now hiding away in the titular Florida condominium in the “Redneck Riviera,” aided by a protective Caribbean nurse (Lily Mojekwu). Burdened by scandal, Judith mockingly declares, “I can’t wait to get Alzheimer’s.” She’s visited for a thankless Thanksgiving by her angry, now homeless 43-year-old daughter Becca (Lusia Strus). Furious at her own failures and her guilt by association, mired in self-pity and self-denial, Becca wants to know how much her mother knew about her father’s billion-dollar treachery. A public confession would be nice too, but, as the Bible says, there’s “no rest for the wicked.”

Accompanying Becca is another unreliable man, her 29-year old vegan boyfriend and pop journalist, Gabe (Erik Hellman). He infuriates Judith with questions about accountability that she won’t answer. But for reasons I’d rather not know, Gabe takes to her granddaughter Lizzy (Leah Karpet), who longs for the warm family she used to know.

Erik Hellman and Linda Kimbrough in THE COMMONS OF PENSACOLA at Northlight Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.Finally, Lizzy’s mother Ali (Lori Myers) storms in to rescue her daughter and, more importantly, root out the hidden fortune she’s sure Judith has stashed away for a lot of rainy days. A mid-play suicide attempt feels particularly perfunctory, considering the light touch that director Robin Witt imposes from the start.

Along with a half-hearted hurricane outside, the usual grievances erupt whenever egos bump within a dysfunctional clan: accusations of parental preference, sibling rivalry, unfinished business, emotional foreclosure. We keep waiting for a show of remorse from Judith and an apology to her loved ones, if not to her husband’s many victims. A television interview at the end creates a kind of closure; but we know this family is simply too hated to ever heal. They can forgive themselves all they want, but a bigger tribunal finds them foul. Revelation as rehabilitation won’t work here.

It doesn’t help that Kimbrough’s bubbly and chirpy Judith is no Mother Courage; a spunky survivor, yes, but she isn’t exactly carrying the weight of the world on her little cart. Always a skilled spitfire, Strus’ elaborately frustrated Becca gives Commons much-needed energy and friction. Hellman and Karpel make what they can of rather redundant characters.

The search for scapegoats is never edifying. When we look at the mirror-gazing Madoffs of the world, it’s not a rhetorical question when we ask, “How can they live with what they see and who they are?

photos by Michael Brosilow

The Commons of Pensacola
Northlight Theatre
9501 Skokie Blvd in Skokie
ends on October 19, 2014
for tickets, call 847.673.6300
or visit Northlight Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago



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