Directed by BJ Jones
At Northlight Theatre, Skokie
Delightful backstage story of famed acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne at their Wisconsin summer home, Ten Chimneys, is a treat.
Northlight Artistic Director BJ Jones took playwright Jeffrey Hatcher and Arizona Theatre Company Artistic Director David Ira Goldstein to the Lunt & Fontanne’s estate, Ten Chimneys, in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin, just west of Milwaukee in 2009. Jones suggested Hatcher write a play about Lunt & Fontanne – the result is Ten Chimneys -first mounted at Arizona Theatre Company now in its Chicago premiere at Northlight Theatre.
Utilizing a terrific set (designed by Tom Burch), Ten Chimney’s intimate estate is the background for the backstage story of the two greatest actors of their era – Lynn Fontanne (1887 – 1983) and Alfred Lunt (1892 – 1977). The two would only work together on stage, never in separate plays. They would put into their contracts that no matter how successful the play, they would take summers off to live in their Wisconsin “farm” – Ten Chimneys. Famed actors such as Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward, Katherine Hepburn, and Helen Hayes were among the guests during summers at the theatrical retreat. Lunt & Fontanne were constantly rehearsing plays even after a work would open as they searched for all the subtle nuance a work offered.
Jeffrey Hatcher gives us a glimpse into the Lunt & Fontanne’s world as we meet the couple at Ten Chimneys. There is Carl (Lance Baker), Alfred’s pool-playing brother; Louise (Janet Ulrich Brooks), Alfred’s sister and Ten Chimney housekeeper. And, of course, there is Alfred’s dominating mother, Hattie (Linda Kimbrough), who both admires and rules Alfred during his time at Ten Chimneys. Alfred built a house on the estate for Harrie. She hated and ridiculed Lynn, Alfred’s wife, at every occasion.
When Sydney Greenstreet (Steve Pringle) and young actress Uta Hagen (Sara Griffin) joins Lunt & Fontanne to rehearse their upcoming production of Chekhov’s The Seagull, the sparks fly between Hagen and Fontanne because sparks fly between Lunt and Hagen. Daggers always appear between Hattie and Lynn. Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher presents a witty, colorful glimpse into the flamboyant world of Thespians as lived by two prima donas – Lunt & Fontanne. We feel like a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ at Ten Chimneys as we hear their secrets, their jealousies, and we experience their passion for theatre. We see the basic insecurity of the actors as they struggle to capture the essence of Chekhov’s The Seagull.
The characters come to life as fill throttled personalities. Linda Kimbrough is deliciously cynical as Alfred’s dominant mother; Janet Ulrich Brooks is the bitter under appreciated sister and Lance Baker is the moody pool-playing brother to Alfred. Sara J. Griggin has the charm and freshness of a young Uta Hagen and Steve Pringle has the pain-filled Sydney Greenstreet down. But the play hinges on the chemistry between V Craig Heidenreich as Alfred and Lia D. Mortensen as Lynn. These two produced sparks, rants and passion for each other and their art. We totally believe these two are channeling Lunt & Fontanne. We see Lunt’s trade mark back-to-the-audience theatrical technique as well as the couples’ rapid fire overlapping speech patterns in action. Celebrated for their sophisticated comic skills, they were known for their ability to swiftly overlap dialogue with such adroitness that every word was understood. We hear this in action.
Hatcher’s backstage slice of life drama takes us delightfully into the world of star-powered actors living their craft through their passionate commitment to their art. Director BJ Jones’ cast both respects and fully understands their roles as each marvelously portrays their legendary characters with grace and aplomb.
Together with the lobby displays and my guest’s knowledge of Ten Chimneys and Lunt & Fontanne, I must take the pilgrimage to Genesee Depot, Wisconsin this summer. Maybe, the walls will reveal their secrets? See Ten Chimneys at Northlight Theatre and you’llwant to visit the retreat in Wisconsin. (Visit www.tenchimneys.org or call 262-968-4110).
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: March 17, 2012
For more info checkout the Ten Chimneys page at theatreinchicago.com
At Northlight Theatre, 9501 N. Skokie Blvd, Skokie, IL, call 847-673-6300, www.northlight.org, tickets $25 – $60, limited Tuesdays at 1 & 7:30 pm, Wednesdays at 1 & 7:30 pm, Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2:30 and 8pm, Sundays at 2:30 and 7 pm, running time is 2 hours, 10 minutes with intermission, through April 15, 2012
Photos from Ten Chimneys by Iris Lieberman: