Directed by Carlo Lorenzo Garcia
Produced by Mary-Arrchie Theatre
At Angel Island, Chicago
Tour de force performance by Eve Rydberg anchors Toronto, Mississippi
Canadian playwright Joan MacLeod’s Toronto, Mississippi is a moving, heartfelt yet realistic look at a modern usual family structure featuring a mentally handicapped teenage girl, her mother and their boarder. This drama is about the power of family and love plus it is a coming of age drama for a teenage girl with ‘special needs.’ Self destructiveness and the creative process are also covered.
The most remarkable character is Jhana – vibrant, manic, determined, Elvis-loving 18 year old girl played with zest and quite convincingly by Eve Rydberg. This lady gave one of the finest performances I’ve witnessed on a Chicago stage! Rydberg has the facial and body gestures, the verbal tones and the general debonair indicating a mentally handicapped person. Rydberg never crosses the line to make Jhana a stereotypical freak rather she plays Jhana as an emerging typical teen looking for independence and love like any other teen. Rydberg slyly shows Jhana’s emergence yet she maintains many of the mannerism of a handicapped person. Rydberg’s performance is reason enough to see this play. She lights up the room as Jhana; her energy is infectious.
Playwright Joan MacLeod cleverly weaves the characters in this strange family dynamic that has Maddie (Laura Sturm) Jhana’s wound-too-tight mother who seems overwhelmed by Jhana and their calming poet/grad student boarder – Bill (Daniel Behrendt in a winning performance) who has a calming influence and rapport with Jhana. Bill is a father figure and best friend to Jhana. The family dynamic, while a constant challenge for Maddie and Bill, seems to be making progress with Jhaba as her passion and drive picks up steam.
When Jhana’s father and Maddie’s ex arrives in Toronto, the family dynamic and Jhana’s stable environment are disrupted. We realize that Maddie, Bill and King just may be as “handicapped” as Jhana. The result of MacLeod’s smart writing makes us look at our preconceptions about the mentally handicapped and exactly what “normal” actually means.
The story is humorous and poignant with Jhana quickly becoming a buoyant lovable and precocious character. We also cheer for Bill, the lost soul poet who desperately desires intimacy and love. King is the wondering minstrel preoccupied with the young Elvis that he no longer can play and audiences in 1987 no longer wish to hear. Can he and Maddie become an item again? The play resolves its issues with credibility. Once you see this worthy play, you’ll have a new notion of the nature of mental disability. The show’s funny epilogue finds King performing in a white Elvis jumpsuit. It also finds Jhana sneaking to the microphone to render a fabulously funny bit.
At Angel Island, 735 W. Sheridan road, Chicago, IL, call 773-871-0442. Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 7 pm, running time is 1 hour, 45 minutes with intermission, through December 19, 2010