Chicago Theater Review: A WONDER IN MY SOUL (Victory Gardens Biograph Theater)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 18, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


The setting is a beloved beauty parlor on Chicago’s South Side. It’s seen better times and may soon see none. Hanging over the storefront is a gallery of famous female African-American singers and pioneers from Rosa Parks to Beyoncé. Instantly we’re more at home than at shop. Playwright Marcus Gardley (The House That Will Not Stand, The Gospel of Lovingkindness, An Issue of Blood) knows this loving/lovely venue well. He feels its folks—five women and one son—even better. A well-observed, fully grasped world premiere at Victory Gardens Theater, A Wonder in My Soul is a tribute to friendship—under fire, in full flower and everywhere in between.

Much like Steel Magnolias or The Beauty Shop, this downhome-decent, old-fashioned drama is a play of place as much as people. Our salon on south State Street is a hotbed of gossip, local politics, and life lessons ripe for sharing. It’s the fall of 2008; the neighbors are excited to think that the President of the U.S. could look like them. Gardley’s potent principals are Bell and Birdie, childhood chums and long-time partners. A would-be recording star who was discouraged because she was “too black,” 64-year-old Aberdeen (“Birdie”) Calumet (Greta Oglesby) hails from Mississippi (which, it seems, is calling her back). More than sisterly solidarity connects this ever-warbling songbird—who declares herself “20% psychic” and is a wary germaphobe—to Bell Grand Lake (Jacqueline Williams).

A hard-boiled, tough-loving minor matriarch, an unmerry widow, and the dogged mother of two, Bell has dedicated her hands and heart to caring for hair and the people beneath it. Flashbacks to 1964 and later depict Bell’s crusading for civil rights. We appreciate the women’s true if tested bonds of belonging. These grow over 40 years in a bustling, then gentrifying, neighborhood that still cherishes their store but can no longer support it. Now the business faces foreclosure and, hopefully, a $100,000 check from Bell’s son—or, that failing, a property auction—may save the day.

The others in Gardley’s intimate dramatic “weave” complete a rich assemblage of August Wilson-rich characters. Deeply if not contagiously religious, “First Lady” (Linda Bright Clay) is the Republican in their midst, a feisty McCain supporter who brags she once dated Obama. Isolated by her politics, F.L. loves coming here once a week to get real. Distrusting government, she thinks charity begins at home—and is currently protecting her pregnant protégé Normal Beverly (Camille Robinson), a new customer who’s having a very bad day, what with three kids and a bum car.

Finally, we meet Bell’s very different children: Beset by unpaid loans, Lafayette Jr. (Jeffery Owen Freelon, Jr.) is a community organizer fighting for funds to protect South Side kids on their way home through gang territory. He’s not above bending the rules to secure their future, including accusations of embezzlement. Comparatively neglected by Bell, Lafayette’s sister Paulina (Donica Lynn) is an unhappy cop who’d rather be, like Birdie, a coming singer and just needs the right—or any—encouragement.

Once Gardley roots his Windy City survivors in their dreams, he makes a story from their struggles. Each gets a speech: It can be powerful stuff, like Bell’s ringing cry to “love your hair,” her exuberant delight in the sheen of snow, and her defense of unflinching mothers or Birdie’s defense of fierce friendship that refuses to enable bad choices. The plot lives to illustrate flaws, frictions and loyalties strong as blood and constant as Christmas in these six souls. Clay, Lynn, Oglesby, Freelon, Robinson, and Williams seem to carve characters from themselves as much as Gardley’s lines. They are the wonders in each other’s souls.

Glowing with solid, never squishy, sentiment, traits to treasure, and telling songs (like Birdie’s homage to Ella Fitzgerald), Victory Gardens’ sextet, lovingly shaped by director Chay Yew, deliver a Chekhov-rich 150 minutes. By play’s end love gets balanced against loss for a very satisfying reckoning.

photos by Liz Lauren

A Wonder in My Soul
Victory Gardens, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave
Tues-Fri at 7:30; Sat at 3 & 7:30; Sun at 3
ends on March 12, 2017
for tickets, call 773.871.3000 or visit Victory Gardens

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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