The Hot L Baltimore

the hot L baltimore at steppenwolf theatre
The Hot L Baltimore

By Lanford Wilson

Directed by Tina Landau

At Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago

Slice of life story of a collection of misfits features terrific ensemble performances

Steppenwolf Theatre returns to what it does best – powerful ensemble dramas. Director Tina Landau has assembled a cast from the “A” list of Equity actors to people her moving production of Lanford Wilson’s (1937 – 2011) The Hot L Baltimore.  Played on the impressive set of a withering old hotel lobby (design by James Schuette), The Hot L Baltimore is a play about the haunting effects of time on a group of social misfits all of which are scared by  ghosts from their past. Their lost dreams led to their personal decay and ruin just as their refuge from the cruel world is about to be demolished.  Their home – The Hot L Baltimore – will soon lose to the wrecking ball.  This is a slice of life drama about the bonds of community that binds a group of  near homeless survivors holding on and surviving without much of a safety net.  They are reacting to the times, 1973, that finds urban life in chaos and decay displacing those with no where to go into urban refugees.  It is a story about the forgotten among us.

the hot L baltimore at steppenwolf theatre

Lanford Wilson has been called a poetic realists due to his lyrical dialogue and his empathetic characters. He is a sort of American Chekhov since he writes with loads of melancholy and he develops fully rounded characters complete with shades of empathy.

the hot L baltimore at steppenwolf theatre

His The Hot L Baltimore is set in a rundown old swanky resident hotel in downtown Baltimore in 1973. The residents include several colorful prostitutes, wondering siblings in search of an organic farm, a semi-lucid retired Southern bell, a hypochondriac older man and the hotel is staffed by a sympathetic desk clerk and  a tough manager. A college student arrives in search of his grandfather, a mother fights for her demented son to be readmitted as a resident while a ghost haunts the hotel with nostalgic singing of tunes like “Stardust.” The whores apply their trade as checkers are played, tea is served and the past is reminisced.

the hot L baltimore at steppenwolf theatre

This play is a frozen time capsule of the American Experience that gives us a glimpse into how change can disrupt the delicate balance of community  where bonds to something – to each other –  are the only refuge for the displaced.  The characters are memorable, quirky and most appealing. Their daily habits, rituals and particularities make for a terrific ensemble audience experience. Their  foibles, fears, and dreams collide with their past as they struggle for dignity and personal fulfillment. We empathize with their plight as we witness their everyday battles. The hotel’s ghost serenades the occupants.

From the diligent front desk man – Bill Lewis (the terrific Jon Michael Hill) to the precocious teen prostitute (Allison Torem in a talky lead performance), to the worldly, blunt street-walker April ( the charismatic de’Adre Aziza) and her rival prostitute Suzy (the sensual Kate Arrington) easily occupy the hotel lobby and fuel the action. Their interaction exudes empathy. When complaining old man – Mr. Morse (the eccentric Yasen Peyankov) and the aging lady Millie (Molly Regan) come down to the lobby, we see how past pain and unfulfilled dreams float throughout the residence hotel.

When a college student – Paul Granger (Samuel Taylor) – arrives in search of his grandfather, the hotel management, lead by Mr. Katz (the commanding James Vincent Meredith) and aided by Mrs. Oxenham (TaRon Patton) the bookkeeper, the haunting past broken promises become symbols. Throughout, we see a well dressed gentleman pacing the upper floor of the hotel. The Man (the golden voiced Sean Allan Krill) underscored the mood with a smooth ballad (Krill nails the gloomy “Stardust”). Millie refers to the presence of ghosts in most residences including the Baltimore. Krill is a most melancholy tuneful ghost.

The hopeful Jackie (Alana Arenas) and her simple-minded brother Jamie (Namir Smallwood) strive to grow organic vegetables if they can get to Utah. The Girl kills their dream with a dose of reality.

As they all receive their 30-day eviction notices, the fear and demise of their fragile community looms just beneath the surface as the daily rituals play out.  The intimacy and richly textured acting by this  committed cast makes for a wonderful theatrical event. You’d be hard pressed to find a more engrossing and empathetic play. Wilson’s poetic language and Landau’s addition of the singing ghost adds spice to the work. The Hot L Baltimore is Steppenwolf at their best! This show is a “must see.”

Highly Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: April 2, 2011

For full show information, go to The Hot L Baltimore TheatreinChicago page.

At Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, IL, call 312-335-1650, www.steppenwolf.org, Tuesday through Sundays at 7:30 pm, Wednesday matinees at 2 pm, Saturday & Sunday matinees at 3 pm, running time is 2 hours, 20 minutes with intermission, through May 29, 2011