Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Pictured: Chris Chmelik and Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel. Photo by Gregg Gilman.
By Bec Willett
You don’t expect a show advertised with a partially-eaten pink cake to thwack you on the heart – but Steep’s production of LELA & CO does just that. Said cake is the cornerstone of main character Lela’s family’s swath of legends, in which she is always known as the “ungrateful” third child. It is a story her family tells over and over again, and with each grandiose repetition the lie that sparked the story somehow becomes more true. But the hyperbole is a distraction, covering a far more sinister and brutal story – the one Lela tells us in this play: the truth.
The script reveals Lela’s life of abuse and oppression through the careful crafting and layering of myriad conventions by both the playwright Cordelia Lynn and director Robin Witt. Constantly interrupted by the men in her life – all deftly portrayed by Chris Chmelik – Lela tells us of her marriage to an abusive man by way of a predatory uncle, and entrapment in her own home. Although actor Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel could afford to take a few more moments at the beginning to breathe, allowing the audience the space to grasp the rules of this new theatrical world, she handles this character’s journey with fearlessness and impressive emotional dexterity.
LELA & CO is presented in an nontraditional space, where the audience is seated immersively in a Chekhovian style room – all wood furniture, ancient walls, and burnished chandeliers. While I can’t pinpoint the exact significance of the aesthetic, the floor plan and structure are an excellent facilitator for Witt’s staging. The movement made the complex storyline clear for the audience by establishing location, but beyond that, it also evokes the harrowing rhythm and sounds of entrapment. When further emphasized through stark theatrical shifts in Brandon Wardell’s lighting and Thomas Dixon’s sound design, we experience Lela’s world become “increasingly tiny.”
On my way home I couldn’t help but keep wondering where this play is set. Perhaps I had missed it? The clues had pointed that it was set in contemporary times, in a place where the British were functioning as peacekeepers – or at least attempting to. But Googling revealed no description except that this was a place of war. Lynn would not let me get off that easy: LELA & CO was not going to allow me to relegate this story “over there,” because this world is not just a concept – it is mine, and this truth is what thwacked me in the heart.
LELA & CO runs through August 19th. For more information visit steeptheatre.com.