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Performance Review:

"CLEARING HEDGES," Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company at Angel Island


Writer-performer Jennifer Barclay is obviously enamored with the drive, tenacity and mischievous humor of star American athlete Mildred "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias. In her one-woman show, receiving its Chicago premiere at Mary-Arrchie Theatre as an off-night offering, Barclay aims to capture a woman who refused to be intimidated by barriers of any kind (including colon cancer) at a time when female athletes were viewed as Amazonian anomalies.

Didrikson (1911-1956), best known as the winner of nearly 100 golf tournaments and one of the founders of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, won two gold medals and broke two world records (in the javelin throw and hurdles) in the 1932 Olympic Games. She made a mark in many other sports, including basketball, baseball, track and field, billiards, tennis, diving and swimming. She also created a dauntlessly bulldozing and gregarious persona that incensed her competitors but won her scores of admirers, especially women encouraged to pursue a field often closed to them.

Barclay’s 45-minute performance piece was originally workshopped in 1998 at Northwestern University and later presented at Vienna’s International Theatre and the Downstairs Cabaret Theatre in Rochester, N.Y. In it, Barclay portrays Didrikson; her mother; sister; colleagues; husband, professional wrestler George Zaharias; and loyal fan and companion Betty. The show also focuses on the notion of celebrity and how Didrikson combined charisma and talent to become quite a monumental historic figure.

But despite Barclay’s earnest enthusiasm and malleable, grounded movement skills, "Clearing Hedges" – named for Didrikson’s early hurdle training methods in her hometown of Beaumont, Texas – feels slight and unfinished. An enhanced and layered script, offering more insights into Didrikson’s boundless determination to win and her unique sense of self, could transform this illuminating show into an even more engaging and inspiring piece of theater.

As it stands, Barclay generally opts for catalogs of "Guiness Book of World Records"-style statistics rather than a multidimensional portrait of the woman behind the sprawling sports victories. The other characters – some of them indistinguishable from each other – also get wedged into something of a cliched corner. And the intriguing triangle of Babe, the domineering George and the devoted Betty never gets beyond the surface of suggestion. In fact, that strained relationship could form the basis for a provocative drama.

Director Jay Paul Skelton draws the most commanding yet winsome performance out of Barclay whenever she portrays Didrikson. Her unfettered confidence, tempered by a coy wink or confiding whisper to the audience, brings her heroine to boldly charming life. It’s when Barclay transitions to other characters that she faces a few challenges in the authenticity realm. The segues could be smoother, helped along by a more subtle and unhurried change in breathing.

Barclay is a vibrant and intelligent performer. With a more pronounced intent and better developed characters, she is capable of transforming Didrikson’s feisty and admirable life into a soaring work of dramatic athleticism.•

"Clearing Hedges" runs through December 18 at Mary-Arrchie Theatre (Angel Island), 731 W. Sheridan Rd. Performances are Mondays and Tuesdays at 8 p.m. Tickets: $10. Call 773-871-0442. Mary-Arrchie also presents the American premiere of Mark O’Rowe’s dark comedy, "From Both Hips," through December 16.

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