Hazel Bartlett, Karole Spangler, Michelle Chalmers, & Susan McNeese Lynch. Photo: Eve Theatre Company
20th Century Blues
By Susan Miller
Directed by Scout Larken
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2019 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Friendships can be a tricky barometer for taking stock of our lives, perhaps because of the connections we forge by choice. In Susan Miller’s 20th Century Blues four women do exactly that, confronting the harsh realities of aging in the modern world.
Danny (Susan McNeese Lynch) is a photographer giving a TED talk about the personal project of photographing herself and three close friends annually for forty years. The action then shifts to a day four months when the four were last together. Gabby (Karole Spangler) is a veterinarian and cancer survivor with a real joi de Vivre, Mac (Hazel Bartlett) is a Black, Gay (both seem important here) journalist who is also equipped with a sharp, sarcastic tongue, and Sil (Michelle Chalmers), a high-end real estate agent. Danny’s announcement that she intends to show the series of pictures cause conflict and a reluctance on some to sign the requested waivers.
What follows is a free flow of vodka, hurt feelings, and the kind of concentrated confessions only found in plays. The writing is insightful and wears its feminism lightly enough to not be overbearing, but it also at times feels redundant and a little tidy in how easily it encapsulates social commentary within each character. Particularly in act two, you can feel the strenuous effort to sell its message.
But it’s juicy stuff for good players, and under Scout Larken’s direction, the cast delivers exemplary work. Karole Spangler is a wonder as Gabby, the freest spirit of the bunch. In a moment where they all start to dance to an Aretha Franklin classic, the others are tentative, but Gabby dances like no one is watching, and the authentic emotional freedom in Spangler’s performance is marvelous to behold. Hazel Bartlett is given the best lines, which she delivers with a weary, caustic wit. It also falls to her to play the most overt intoxication, and she manages to not fall prey to the trap of chewing that scenery too hard. Michelle Chalmers gets Sil’s overcautious conservatism just right, finding the sense of the objections enough in suggestions of deeper waters. Danny is more catalyst than a character in the writing, but Susan McNeese Lynch gives her a commanding presence while handling the didactic demands of the text with aplomb.
Danny’s mother Bess is introduced early on, and reappears towards the end, along with with her son, Simon, an investigative journalist for an online publication. Gilmer McCormick renders a woman facing her final years with sensitivity and humanity, and Ian Weber makes Simon the envy of every parent in America, dedicated to family, community, and social justice, a paragon of integrity. These are brief but telling inclusions that highlight the strength and weaknesses of Miller’s writing.
Kathryn Spivey Deckard’s set design is evocative and efficient in allowing the various spaces demanded by the text, and the costumes illustrate the differences in these women who have shared so much together.
If Miller overreaches, she has hold of a compelling concept. 20th Century Blues captures the very specific dynamic of looking back on lives that have spanned the last half of a century now passed. Are memories that spans the change of centuries subject to a greater, crueler degree of introspection. These women struggle with the growing obsession with self that dogs the last generation or two of Americans, and Sil’s stubbornness in refusing to sign the waiver can strike you as both selfish and a last gasp in the defense of the privacy we have so willingly sacrificed.
20th Century Blues
October 24, 25, 26, 31 November 1, & 2 @ 7:30 PM
October 27 & November 3 @ 2:30 PM
Eve Theatre Company
Kentucky Center for the Arts
501 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, where he is Managing Editor of their Artebella blog, and host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com. But spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.