Tuesday August 22nd 2017

“Absolute Hell”

Jefferson Park is a neighborhood where one would not anticipate finding a storefront theater, but for many years The Gift Theatre Company has brought many quality productions to the corner of Lawrence and Milwaukee Avenues- productions that are dedicated to telling us great stories that are both honest and simple. They do this in a space that is more than intimate, it is almost minuscule in size. In fact, their current production, The United States premiere of “Absolute Hell” written by Rodney Ackland, uses 21 actors in this tiny space. For those of you unfamiliar with The Gift, there are only two rows of seats along one wall ( facing the stage area) and a few more on the side. I think the seating capacity is around 34, which will give you an indication of just how small the theater is.

They say, “good things come in small packages”, and over the years, The Gift has lived up that statement. “Absolute Hell” takes place in London, a month after World War II has ended. We are in what is termed a private club”La Vie En Rose”, a members only intimate drinking and dining club operated by Christine ( a strong performance by Lynda Newton) a lonely woman who like her patrons love to drink and fool around. In fact, each of the club’s “members” is a person in search of their own identity and comes to this club to escape from the real world just outside its doors.

There is a special election taking place in London, one that will change these characters lives, a war has just ended and while the “members” should be looking towards a new and brighter future, they are stuck in the lives they have ensconced themselves into.They are losers, lovers ( of both male and female persuasion), each one having secrets of their own, and some they share.They love to drink, and drink most night away, often going home with someone that they didn’t enter with.

Directed by  Sheldon Patinkin, who marvelously takes us into the hearts and deep into the souls of these colorful and unusual characters, bringing them to life on a cleverly designed set by Ian Zywica ( who sure makes use of this narrow stage area), the hardest thing about this production is the length, over 3 hours with one 15 minute intermission ( and they only have two bathrooms), and yet, it moves quickly, with lots of booze and props ( wow, Rita Thornton truly had her hands full with this one). The music ( why is it in anything post World war II, there is always some Edith Piaf music) and lighting by Scott Pillsbury and the costumes by Kate Murphy all are the icing on the cake.

The cake however, what makes this production work, is the cast of players, from the smallest role to the leads, each one develops the character from the written page to live performance with great zest and energy. Michael Patrick Thornton is delightful as writer Hugh Marriner, a man caught in world where his talent is no longer respected as it was and his love life , not what he would like, so the club has become his refuge. In the club, he is a king and loved by those who surround him. It is hard to analyze each of these characters as I only have so much space, but they are all unique with stories that are deep. The employees of the club, the soldiers who hang about for drinks ( as guests) and possible sex, the hooker who walks the area, the critic who comes for the food and drink with her “aide” ( or is there more to that relationship), the friends who are more than friends and willing to share more than we think they should, the crazy lady who wants to bring religion to everyone, the lonely older lady who just comes to drink and be around others. When they are forced to close the club, we start to see that each person has no choice but to look in the mirror and decide  who they are, and the results are not what you might expect. At least, not for all!

Jay Worthington,Adam Welsh, Dylan Stuckey, Maria Stephens, Amy Speckien, Justine Serino, Kenny Mihlfried, Marssie Mencotti, Donna McGough, Alexandia Main ( always a delight on their stage), Gabriel Franken, Joanne Dubach, Patrick De Nicola, Alexis Atwell, The adorable Brittany Burch as the femme fatale, John Kelly Connolly ( as the member who should not be a member), Kurt Conroyd, Harter Clingman and the always reliable Paul D’Addario as the man who holds the power. I told you this was a large cast filled with talent. This is a big play in a small theater and does have some gunshots, smoking ( although they use the fake ceramic smokes) and some swearing and sexual situations, so be aware before you purchase your tickets, but if you enjoy interesting studies of characters, do buy your tickets.

“Absolute Hell” will continue through April 29th at The Gift Theatre ,4802 N. Milwaukee Avenue with performances as follows:

Thursdays,Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets range from $22-$32 and can be purchased by calling 773-283-7071 or at www.thegifttheatre.org, where you can also see specials with dinner at The Gale Street inn ( just a block north of the theater-great Ribs!)

It is easy to get to The Gift using public transportation ( the Blue Line is just down the street), and parking is available, some 9 p.m. meters. The Kennedy is just East of the theater


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