By John Patrick Shanley
Directed by Will Crouse
Produced by The Poor Theatre
Playing at Rivendell Theatre
A Play for the Lonely Savage in Us All
The Poor Theatre opened its 4th season this week with a strong production of John Patrick Shanley’s 1984 play Savage in Limbo. Though Shanley didn’t subtitle this play, as he did his 2004 drama Doubt: A Parable, its existential portrayal of five lives caught in the seething pool of mid-life desperation certainly offers a parabolic, life-in-aspic examination of the hungering misery that befalls those who lack the courage either to dare vice or to sustain virtue.
It’s only 7:30pm in this misty, Bronx bar when Denise Savage (Abbey Smith) bursts in, brimming with energy and desperate for some thrills. But the jukebox is broken and the bar is virtually empty. That is, except for the presence of Denise’s former classmate, April White (Philena Gilmer), who is herself already heartily stoned into a stupor; and, of course, there is the taciturn barkeep Murk (Dan Toot), who caringly and continually extends April credit in order to help keep her in her oblivious daze.
As Denise settles down for a game of solitaire, in rushes Linda Rotunda (Erika Haaland), another former classmate of Denise, with tears in her eyes. Linda’s boyfriend Antonio Brunetti (Tony Aroncia), we learn, has just told her he wishes to see other women — other, ugly women, to be precise. Not long after this discovery, and after the three women have nearly agreed to move in together to begin their new lives, Antonio himself shows up and expounds upon his newfound, philosophical insight: ugly women, he has it, represent a class of women alien to him that holds the possibility of showing him a new perspective on life, one his wanton fornicating has never revealed.
As one might expect, neither Denise nor Linda are exactly impressed or convinced, and the remainder of the evening plays out with each of them attempting to lure the Italian stud into her arms: Denise, a self-avowed virgin, promises the exotic existence of a “bed-less” home (i.e. no sex); Linda, on the other hand, a women with three illegitimate children (one of them his), promises a life of marriage. Like in Sartre’s No Exit, each of them have a need that only an other can satisfy; unlike No Exit, all of them can find some semblance of solace — except one.
The comparison with Sartre I think is appropriate, particularly because Will Crouse’s staging highlights well the existential nature of Savage in Limbo: the set (designed by Gregory Pinsoneault) is rather surreal, what with the constant fog lingering over the bar and the floor seeming to ride up the wall and hang from the ceiling. Crouse also has his actors break the fourth wall at times, either to sit in the audience or to address us directly, as if pleading to us for aid. I don’t know whether that is in Shanley’s stage directions, but it was an interesting touch, even though I wouldn’t say it added anything to my experience.
Aside from his quasi-metaphysical staging, Crouse directs some wonderfully honest performances from his actors — something, I’m learning, that should be cherished for its rarity. Erika Haaland (Linda) has to perform a lot of active listening in this 80-minute piece, and I declare unironically that her attentive reception to her scene partners alone is enough to make her a fascinating actress to watch. Tony Brunetti (Antonio) does well to make his character both irresistibly captivating as well as sympathetically obtuse, whereas a lesser actor might have played him too abrasively macho. And Abbey Smith, as the titular protagonist Denise Savage, brings a lot of energy to her character’s deep and embittered desperation; although, regrettably, her existential hunger is the least sympathetic despite (or, perhaps, on account of) it being the least subtextual and the most . . . well, savage.
That being said, I did find myself wanting more from the play emotionally at the end, and while I suspect the issue lies in the protagonist, I’m more suspect of the characters themselves than the acting — which, again, I admired. Though, I am told, Shanley was very close to these characters (he grew up with them, so to speak), the slight contrivance of the lonely-hearts-bar conceit here works for the play’s metaphysical mood just as much as it ends up diluting the characters’ histories into thinly drawn, expositional clichés (again, tending toward the parabolic). Nevertheless, The Poor Theatre’s production of Savage in Limbo offers something both poetically and artistically substantial for anyone who appreciates fine acting in close quarters and an intense examination of the savage desperation lurking in unsatisfied lives.
Reviewed on 16 June 2016.
Playing at the Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge Ave., Chicago. Tickets are $15, with $10 tickets for students/industry, and Pay-What-You-Can performances on June 23rd and June 30th. For tickets and information, visit ThePoorTheatre.org. Performances are Thursdays – Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through July 17th. (Exceptions: No performances on July 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. Additional performances on Wednesday, June 29th at 8:00 p.m. and Thursday, June 30th at 8:00 p.m.). Running time is 80 minutes with no intermission.