Chicago Theater Review: NATURAL AFFECTION (Eclipse Theatre Company)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 18, 2018

in Theater-Chicago

CHRISTMAS CAN BE CRUEL

More than most, life’s victims need their storytellers. William Inge (1913-1973) wrote his characters from the inside out — theirs and his. A heart surgeon without a scalpel, Inge, like his mentor Tennessee Williams, was a town crier against the meanness and pettiness — in both anonymous  cities and rural backwaters — that demean folks and shorten their lives. (Inge did it to himself, committing suicide in 1973 at the age of 60.)

Before that early exit, Inge’s wonderful works — The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Bus Stop, Picnic, Summer Brave, Come Back, Little Sheba — and a fairly late offering, the ironically named Natural Affection, drive home hard truths about quiet desperation. It makes theatrical sense that Eclipse Theatre Company, which dedicates its entire season to one playwright, picked Inge for 2018.

Uncharacteristically set in a big city, Natural Affection is a two-hour heartbreaker from 1963 that takes no prisoners, including the audience. This concentrated work focuses on a single mother in Chicago trapped between the unhelpful lover who refuses to marry her and an abandoned teenage son who returns, hoping to be taken in and finally escape the work farm. After orphanages and homelessness, this child jail is the latest dead end to cancel his childhood.

It’s Christmas 1962 and, in her small but trendy North Side digs, Sue Barker (Diana Coates), head lingerie buyer for a big department store, is hoping for a permanence that’s eluded her (“I want something I can keep”). It didn’t happen when her baby father deserted her, leaving her with a needy boy she couldn’t handle. And it’s not happening with her car-salesman boyfriend Bernie Slovenk (Luke Daigle) who can’t provide and may lose his job.

Meanwhile, randy Bernie has ended (sort of) a clumsy affair with his good-time girl neighbor Claire Brinkman (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason), a very former model. Claire in turn must reckon with her depressed and despairing alky husband Vince (Joe McCauley), on the edge of bankruptcy and out of sorts with the time and himself. (Vince’s soliloquy about the pointlessness of persisting to live could have doubled as a suicide note for Inge ten years later.)

Nearing 40, what sustains guilt-ridden Sue, who calls herself a “mama lion,” is her hope to make up for neglecting Donnie (Terry Bell), a battered boy who bears literal scar tissue. Whatever ugliness she sees outside the window, inside she can make an apartment a home. Now that Sue can provide for this young man with anger issues, will Bernie, who doesn’t want to be anyone’s foster father, get in the way? It all comes down to whether Bernie, Donnie or Sue herself can see her as a mother, after so many years of defensive survival and clawing for normalcy.

In the second act, Inge brings the plot to an ugly boil on Christmas Eve. Unleashing demons in all directions, Sue, Bernie, the noisy neighbors, and especially Donnie deliver a reckoning that will shock any audience. Inge doesn’t bother to pace or orchestrate this collective breakdown (so inimical to the holiday spirit): He just unleashes a pent-up cascade of implacable unhappiness. Words are said that can never be taken back. The evening ends with a crime without a cover-up. It defies any resolution, theatrical or psychological. The action in this domestic tragedy isn’t so much constructed as detonated.

Rachel Lambert’s staging makes the calamities count, refusing to condemn or condescend to Inge’s familiar yearners. Among a cunning cast, Coates is superb at conveying Sue’s deeply torn soul. Though too retroactively self-destructive and unprocessed in its pain to count as Inge’s best, Natural Affection (a title that contradicts itself) is catnip for eight actors and a crowd of grown-ups. The fact that it’s rarely done is no reason not to see it: Inge’s uncompromising honesty and relentlessly raw realism, even in chronicling contagious anguish, is far preferable to current phony trivializers like Lookingglass’s Plantation! and Steppenwolf’s The Doppelganger.

photos by Scott Dray

Natural Affection
Eclipse Theatre Company
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 2
ends on May 20, 2018
for tickets, call 773.935.6875 or visit Eclipse

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 2 comments }

Nikki Smith April 22, 2018 at 3:25 pm

After reading you review, I saw the play — and became a subscriber. Thank you for your intelligent insight into a difficult piece of theater. (I will not be renewing my subscription to Steppenwolf. The company has disappointed me, both in selection of material and in ethical behavior toward critic Hedy Weiss.)

Larry Bommer April 23, 2018 at 4:27 pm

Glad my review made a difference, Nikki. I won’t talk you out of the Steppenwolf rebuff — for either of your excellent reasons…

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