Chicago Theater Review: ONE CAME HOME (Lifeline)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 23, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


Like a baby on a breast, Lifeline Theatre thrives on adaptations of “coming of age” novels. As with many memory-rich predecessors, Jessica Wright Buha’s clear and present stage version of One Came Home, Amy Timberlake’s “heroine journey” best-seller from 2013, hangs on seminal turning points. Buha efficiently establishes clear relationships among boldly drawn characters about whom you care sooner and longer than you expect. Elise Kauzlaric completes the labor of love, staging this small-town mystery thriller with tensile timing and unexcelled casting.

Amanda Jane Long as Agatha Burkhardt, with (L to R) Miriam Reuter, Patrick Blashill, Dan Granata, and Jeff Kurysz in Lifeline Theatre’s production of ONE CAME HOME. Photo by Suzanne Plunkett.

Saluting literal sisterhood and enriched by John Szymanski’s guitar backdrop, the story celebrates the plucky, stubborn, and resilient persistence of tomboy Georgie Burkhardt (Ashley Darger, firing on all cylinders). This turbulent teen comes from the glacially scoured, sparsely wooded fields of erroneously named Placid, Wisconsin in 1871 (the year of the deadliest fire to ever hit the state–but, strangely, that’s not in the play despite the specificity of the year). The biggest–and most lucrative–event to excite this remote settlement is the annual passenger pigeon migration. The big sky processions attract hordes of hunters, like sharpshooting Georgie. (The flocks are delightfully depicted by actors manipulating Alan Donahue’s fluttering puppets.)

Ashley Darger as Georgie Burkhardt in Lifeline Theatre’s production of ONE CAME HOME. Photo by Suzanne Plunkett.

But feisty Georgie’s sole concern right now is her disappeared older sister Agatha (ardent Amanda Jane Long). A redheaded, intellectually curious and independent minded, heartland lady, Agatha dreams of homesteading in Minnesota with handsome Billy (winsome Jeff Kurysz) or running off to university in Madison, where there are a lot more books than she can read in Placid. Agatha is clumsily wooed by Billy and also by hotelkeeper Mr. Olmstead (Dan Granata), the town’s magnate and owner of ornate books for Agatha to adore. Complicating the courtships is Agatha’s rival Polly (Miriam Reuter), a pioneer woman born to bust sod.

Ashley Darger as Georgie Burkhardt and Amanda Jane Long as Agatha Burkhardt in Lifeline Theatre’s production of ONE CAME HOME. Photo by Suzanne Plunkett.But this is all backstory, effectively told in flashbacks: Our worry is Agatha’s unexplained and uncharacteristic departure for destinations unknown. Worse, scattered body parts have been found downstate, with shreds of the blue ball gown that Agatha took with her. The town is plunged into sorrow. Agatha, as they presume her to be, is buried with fond recollections from her God-fearing grandfather (Errol McLendon) and disconsolate ma (Heather Currie).

But ever contrary Georgie won’t believe her sister is dead. She just can’t feel that much absence. She rents a mule from Billy, who refuses to let this “small fry” go alone. The unlikely twosome set off to find Agatha or her killers, wherever it takes them. Along the instructive way, the cumulatively courageous duo meet helpful strangers and “pigeoners.” The travelers slowly appreciate each other’s no longer threatening extremes–Georgie’s reflexive hunches and “big brother” Billy’s protective caution. Georgie even falls for the dashing farm boy as they become each other’s Samaritans of choice. The hunt takes them all over the Badger State. They meet all kinds, including nasty renegades called the Gowers and enter a cave that discloses more than one crime. Agatha’s fate is, of course, not to be revealed by even the slightest spoiler.

Jeff Kurysz as Billy and Ashley Darger as Georgie Burkhardt in Lifeline Theatre’s production of ONE CAME HOME. Photo by Suzanne Plunkett.It’s enough to praise taut plotting by author and adaptor: The 150 minutes pass fairly fast, fueled by our curiosity as much as Georgie’s dogged quest. The staging, ingenious and resourceful as its source, employs tall ladders to depict horses and wooden platforms to double as coffins, counters in stores, and blocked doors.

Equally supple, Lifeline’s eight-member ensemble commit to these characters, inside and out. They’re super-served by Donahue’s wonderfully evocative Wisconsin winterscape, its rolling fogs subtly suggested by a spectral scrim and Diane Fairchild’s impressionistic lighting. Szymanski’s sound effects tell stories in their own right. Aly Renee Amidei’s equally earth-toned costumes could have stepped out of period mezzotints: Their instant nostalgia provides the best illustrations an author could wish. A good yarn grows into a great memory.

Amanda Jane Long as Agatha Burkhardt in Lifeline Theatre’s production of ONE CAME HOME. Photo by Suzanne by Suzanne Plunkett

One Came Home
Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave.
Thu & Fri at 7:30;
Sat at 4pm & 8pm; Sun at 4pm
ends on April 5, 2015
for tickets, call 773-761-4477
or visit

for more info on Chicago Theater,


Daniel Fitzgerald February 24, 2015 at 7:20 am

A bit of a crass opening line, to say the least. I disagree with the sentiment that Lifeline thrives on “coming of age novels” alone, as evidenced by their remarkable range of material that is frequently adapted season by season, including the reviewed piece. Considering the overall positive and thoughtful nature of the review that follows it is jarring to see their work trivialized for the sake of empty (and inaccurate) shock value in your ill-advised opening Mr. Bommer. The production and company deserve more respect than that.

Lawrence Bommer February 24, 2015 at 8:28 am

I never said that that genre is all that Lifeline Theatre does. But it’s certainly what they do best and why they’re known and loved.

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