Review: SOUTHERN GOTHIC at Windy City Playhouse

Review: SOUTHERN GOTHIC at Windy City Playhouse

(l-r) Paul Fagen, Brianna Borger, Christine Mayland Perkins, Peter Ash, Ariel Richardson, Brian McCaskill, Michael McKeough and Sarah Grant. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

By Elizabeth Ellis

Not too long ago, a fellow writer friend of mine once bemoaned the glut of reality TV shows, and how they were taking work away from writers who know how to create good drama. “Why watch these regular people, when they could see shows with great acting and actual stories?” he grumbled. My response was, “Because all kinds of people secretly want to peek through their neighbors’ windows and see what their lives are really like.” It’s this hush-hush voyeurism that has created and made wild successes of shows such as those in the Real Housewives franchise. We spy into the homes and lives of spectacularly indolent wealthy people, and equally marvel at and criticize their sins, their problems, and their pleasures. Bring this snarky and gossipy attitude to Windy City Playhouse’s superb immersive production of Leslie Liataud’s fascinating SOUTHERN GOTHIC, and enjoy what appears to be four genteel Southern couples beginning to unravel, revealing the sordid and lascivious truths present in each of their relationships.

It’s a late June evening in 1961 in Ashford, Georgia, and Beau and Ellie Coutier have invited their friends (as well as audience members) to a 40th birthday cocktail party for their dear friend, Suzanne Wellington. As patrons enter the theatre, they pass by not seats and risers, but the clapboard side of the Coutiers’ gracious suburban Atlanta home. The set is a fully realized home with functioning rooms: far more grand and realistic than sets even in larger theatres. Patrons pass by the side of the home to the patio, then enter through the back door to see a bathroom, hallway, living room, dining room, and kitchen. Window seats with cushions are set up on the periphery of the rooms for the audience to sit, though everyone is encouraged to move to different rooms to experience the various exchanges between the characters, who interact in every room (patrons aren’t expected to hear every conversation between every character). In an even more specific nod to authenticity, audience members can partake of the various platters of hors d’oeuvres and bowls of popcorn and snacks, and WCP staff move about silently like catering staff, offering real cocktails to the partygoers.

Now that the party setting is established, here’s the story: Ellie and Beau (Sarah Grant and Michael McKeogh) welcome her brother, Jackson Wellington and his wife, Suzanne (Paul Fagen and Brianna Borger) to celebrate her birthday. Beau, recently back from a visit to rehab, is making his first step back into regular socializing with WASPs, where there is sure to be far more alcohol than food. Ellie, the resident everywoman with the attendant exhaustion, is trying to hold together a life she may not be sure she wants to be a part of anymore. Suzanne, acid-tongued under a syrupy sweet facade even when sober, begins her descent into overt attacks and nastiness as the drinks keep coming, while her endlessly patient husband tries to maintain the peace, with minimal success. Also attending the soiree are up-and-coming politician Charles Lyon and his wife, Lauren (Brian McCaskill and Christine Mayland Perkins). The Lyons look like the perfect photogenic political couple, but their physical charms belie a harsh and brutal relationship. The last to arrive are newish couple Tucker Alsworth and Cassie Smith (Peter Ash and Ariel Richardson); as a happy interracial couple in the early 1960’s American South, their mere presence adds fuel to the gossipy fire.

At the risk of revealing too many of the essential plot points, here is uniform praise for the actors’ excellent performances, all of which would translate easily into any character written by Tennessee Williams. Michael McKeogh’s Beau is sweet and afraid of disappointing his patient wife, while Sarah Grant’s Ellie hopes her perfect hostess patina covers evidence of some major personal transgressions. Brianna Borger’s Suzanne captures you with her gregarious nature, but she proves to be passive-aggressively harsh, combative, and vituperative. Paul Fagen’s Jackson, Suzanne’s husband, works overtime to try to keep a semblance of peace and congeniality, while losing a little of his soul as he deflects every barb Suzanne throws his way. The most complex couple is the Lyons: Brian McCaskill’s glad-handing Charles is too charming, too smooth, and his moments alone with his wife show his true and nasty character. Christine Mayland Perkins’ Lauren provides the most heartbreaking performance in the show; Charles obviously abuses her on multiple levels, and her attempts to self-medicate through alcohol only serve to add fuel to Charles’ conflagration. The one couple who seem to actually like each other are Tucker and Cassie; Peter Ash shows genuine love and respect for his girlfriend, despite a past with another person in attendance at the party, while Ariel Richardson brings a much-needed breath of truth, class, and elegance as the local gossip columnist’s assistant.

Director David H. Bell has an enormously complex challenge in front of him. He must take Liataud’s juicy script that is intentionally not supposed to be heard in its entirety by every member of the audience, and give every interaction and character equal weight and attention – Bell does so beautifully. By allowing the audience to hear just enough snippets of conversation to keep them interested, Bell recreates the feeling of a real cocktail party, which is no small feat. Scott Davis’ sumptuous set and Eleanor Kahn’s authentic props are a masterpiece of attention to accuracy and detail, as are Elsa Hiltner’s gorgeous costumes.

Because you could choose one of eight characters to observe during the party, SOUTHERN GOTHIC is the kind of play that could easily develop a cult following (“let’s watch Suzanne this time!”). It’s a fabulous visit back in time, but so much still seems familiar and applicable that the play and characters still seem fresh and new, and worth a few cocktails and nibbles.

About author

Elizabeth Ellis

Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.

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