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Theater Review:

"MRS. MACKENZIE’S BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO THE BLUES" at Stage Left Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

The debates rattling around "Mrs. Mackenzie’s Beginner’s Guide to the Blues" are as lengthy and unwieldy as the title of this controversial play by Patty Lynch and Kent Stephens. The story of the titular 31-year-old Minnesota high school music teacher, who engages in a sexual affair with her 16-year-old male student, raises burningly relevant questions about what constitutes corruption of a juvenile, gender issues and both the need for and inherent problem with legislating emotions when an adult and a minor are involved.

This refreshingly frank and probing work, receiving its Chicago premiere in a steamy yet level-headed staging directed by Jessi D. Hill at Stage Left Theatre, transcends sensationalism to examine the psychological complications of these issues. The fact that Mrs. Mackenzie teaches a course on the origins of blues music as arising out of poverty, oppression and forbidden love among African Americans in the rural South and Southwest gives the play an added layer of anguished poetry.

The presence of a live blues trio – Tim Gittings, Dan Moran and Dan Waring – playing the music of Muddy Waters, Charley Patton and other blues legends – immerses audiences in these gritty melodies forged out of the scars of racism and destitution. Then, via Ann Davis’ smoky nightclub/jail/stifling classroom set and Leigh Barrett’s chiaroscuro lighting, we can feel more acutely the tension of impassioned abandon against the squeaky-clean confines of the middle-class Little Falls High School.

At its best, "Mrs. Mackenzie’s Beginner’s Guide to the Blues" slides through the grooves of moral ambiguity. We get a sense of the teacher’s troubled childhood and empty marriage; of her refuge in blues music and its ability to put her in touch with her raw emotions. Since she is the most developed character, Mrs. Mackenzie struggles with the loss of her identity after the birth of her child, resentment at being shoved into the mainstream and the radical steps she takes to defy the sterile conventions of her town. She ultimately pushes Tyler Cutts -- the talented blues-guitarist student to whom she becomes lover and surrogate mother – to break free of an ordinary, anonymous life in Nowhere, U.S.A.

At its worse, the play substitutes caricature for comic relief. For instance, a ditzy psychologist who goads Tyler into admitting he was coerced against his will is named Phillip Shakeshaft and, at one point, engages in a "Three Stooges"-style phone bit with his dog yapping in the background. A satiric "investigative" news segment, titled "Takin’ at the River," is too over-the-top to be wryly critical of media manipulation.

Tyler, while sufficiently torn yet lost in teenage oblivion, does not undergo a marked transformation – even though he mirrors the classic blues ritual of demonizing one’s mentor to reinvent oneself as an artist. But the play takes a balanced look at the law, the dangers of power and the collective hypocrisy that results from an increasingly smug and intolerant populace.

Jenny McKnight, an actress who draws inspiration from the deepest fibers of her being, genuinely illuminates Mrs. Mackenzie’s contradictory drives without resorting to "unstable" cliches. She is a profoundly passionate woman, who – no matter how harmful her choices may be – dares to follow the laws of nature, not the laws of man. Geoff Rice capably portrays Tyler as a somewhat lost kid flattered by the attention he receives from his attractive young teacher. But his Tyler also has a generic quality, which runs counter to McKnight’s intensely unique and full-bodied interpretation.

Much credit goes to two actors who populate the stage with limitless viewpoints: Karin McKie, who compellingly morphs into multiple characters – from a Bible-thumping student to Mackenzie’s in-denial German immigrant mother; and Jesse Weaver, whose brisk comic timing makes some of his more stereotypical characters come to vibrant life.

There’s another layer of metaphor to this play. The blues, a music form and experience inseparable from African-American culture, are taught and performed by white characters. Mrs. Mackenzie romanticizes the misery of the blues to the point of living the music’s impassioned torment. So there’s a certain degree of misguided psychological slumming going on.

In a paradox more complex than the obvious problem of teacher seducing student, Mrs. Mackenzie longs to feel the oppression that gave birth to rhythms culled from the hellish abyss of discrimination. Her salvation is also her undoing. And, like Tyler, the real blues are just beyond her grasp.•

"Mrs. Mackenzie’s Beginner’s Guide to the Blues" runs through April 6 at Stage Left Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield. Tickets: $15-$20. Call 773-883-8830 or log onto www.stagelefttheatre.com.

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