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Theater Commentary:

"FOSSILS" at Victory Gardens Theater…and more


It had been pouring for the past two days and showed no signs of ceasing on Saturday, May 26, when I headed to Victory Gardens Theater to catch the 5 p.m. performance of "Fossils," Claudia Allen’s latest intimate comedy-drama. I was anxious to see two exquisite mature actresses – multi-Tony Award winner Julie Harris and Chicago’s own Ann Whitney – duke it out with charm and gumption in this new play about passion ignited in two women later in life.

But the mood in the packed lobby soon mirrored the dreariness outside as the audience, dripping and chilled, waited for the house to open almost ten minutes past 5. Frazzled theater personnel tried to graciously maintain their composure. But something obviously was wrong. At first, I thought there might be a leak in the roof or a technical problem. But after every seat in the main theater got filled, managing director Marcelle McVay informed patrons that Harris had taken ill and was hospitalized in stable condition. Specific details about the legendary actress’ condition have not been disclosed to the press.

McVay also announced that Harris’ understudy, Yolanda Lyon Miller (who had not yet experienced a full run-through), would step in. Instead of intense groans of anger or disappointment, the audience expressed genuine concern for Harris. McVay was willing to refund tickets. But no one stormed out. And when Lyon Miller made her tentative but committed entrance, you could hear not only a pin drop but also the energized vibes of theatergoers soaring through the air to make the very brave understudy feel welcome.

It was a moment tinged with sadness and magic. A true sense of community enveloped the theater – further magnified by the consummate professionalism and encouragement of Whitney, Lyon Miller’s co-star. The theater lost about a handful of people at intermission, but it was barely noticeable. Harris would be proud to know that, while we are all wishing her a speedy recovery, the audience stuck by the actors and by the work.

Now on to this world-premiere work. Despite some of the more pat flaws in Allen’s play – which sets up and resolves conflicts much too tidily – "Fossils" humorously and economically addresses a rarely seen pairing on stage. Carrie (Lyon Miller), a retired school teacher, has kept her lesbianism hidden since her first lover committed suicide after being found out, fired from her job and disowned by her family. She is enjoying a two-week vacation at a B&B on the shores of Lake Michigan, where she meets Abigail, a retired and widowed economics professor with decidedly Right Wing views. Allen makes some pungent, if forced reversals. Carrie is feminine and reserved; while Abigail is a rugged, big-boned woman with a penchant for fishing.

Over a series of short conversational scenes on Jeff Bauer’s weathered clapboard front-porch set, the women strike up a friendship, confront each other about their opposing views and eventually begin a love affair. Abigail harbors a deep resentment of homosexuals after her first boyfriend left her for another man. In the end, however, Abigail becomes Carrie’s lover – quite a stretch considering the swiftness with which she moves from homophobe to homosexual (although it can be argued that many closeted gays are among the most staunchly homophobic).

So my main criticism of the play -- which features smart, spunky dialogue and an inspiring theme – is that Allen sets up strict polarities that are cliches in their own right (Carrie’s free-spirited lover of books and long walks along the shore; and Abigail’s numbers-crunching Republican with narrow opinions). They resolve too many serious issues with a swig of champagne or a sappy-sentimental admission – choices that undercut what could be a critically eye-opening play.

While it would be unfair to review this production -- directed by Sandy Shinner -- because of the unexpectedly challenging circumstances, I must say that Whitney truly stretches herself as Abigail. She’s strong, confident and grounded. Her character not only knows her arch supports but also can carry her confounded emotions to a believable arc of discovery. Lyon Miller should win a special award for conveying so tenderly Carrie’s torment and grace under fire.

After the performance, Victory Garden’s McVay took time to inform audience members as they filed out that Harris’ condition had stabilized. And a gratifying sense of camaraderie engulfed the theater. The feeling continued through more torrential downpours and will remain forever in my heart.

Lyon Miller performs the role of Carrie until Victory Gardens finds a replacement for Harris, a consummate actress who is wished a quick and healthy return to the stage.•

"Fossils" runs through June 17 at Victory Gardens Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln. Tickets: $28-$33. Call 773-871-3000.
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