Equity Library Theatre Chicago

at Chicago Dramatists Workshop

Following in the footsteps of Edgar Lee Masters and Edwin Arlington Robinson, whose Spoon River Anthology and Tilbury Town constitute real estate in American literature as palpable as that next door, poet David Budbill has penned Judevine, a chronicle of a minuscule Vermont town (possibly Wolcott, where Budbill now lives) populated by an astonishing variety of characters whose lives form the basis for the poems the author weaves into a history for the stage.

The central narratives revolve around two couples: Tommy Stames, haunted by his wartime experiences, and Grace, who loves Tommy and her children with an angry devotion. The fierce passion of their affair is contrasted with the 50-year marriage of Ann and Raymond Miller, who pass through life and into death with a peace and serenity that puzzle even themselves ("Have we become so predictable?" Ann wonders). As we observe the destinies of these two sets of lovers, we meet other residents of Judevine: Antoine LaMotte, father figure to the men on his lumber-camp crew; Roy McInnes, a welder whose handiwork has the grandeur of basilicas and whose shop rings with a hallelujah anvil chorus; postmaster Edgar Whitcomb and city clerk Laura Cate, who share an enduring and unspoken romance; factory seamstress Bobbie, beautiful despite "two brown teeth" and a maimed hand, and her sometimes-beau the bearish Doug; storekeeper Alice Twiss, who drives a Harley-Davidson and inspires jealousy even in the allegedly objective narrator. And many, many more no better or worse than people everywhere.

What then distinguishes Judevine from countless other dramatic fanfares for the common man--most notably the stage adaptation of Spoon River Anthology, which Judevine resembles in its story-theater techniques? The answer lies in the carefully studied performances of the Equity Library Theatre company: they mine each unremarkable personality for what will resonate universally. Though introducing the main characters seems an interminable process at times, we come to care deeply about them and to see the dignity inherent in the humblest of human beings.

The 11-member cast play some 23 roles--as well as doors, machines, and other inanimate objects--but so protean are the actors and so inventive is Virginia Smith's direction that eventually we're able to identify each character simply by a walk or voice. Particularly memorable are Craig Spidle as the weathered Raymond, Jack Hickey as the earthy Antoine, Suellen Burton as the intense Grace, and Stephen Spencer as the taciturn Tommy and the placid Roy. There is also music to accompany the action of Budbill's play, but what makes the town of Judevine real to us, even on a bare stage, is the orchestra of sounds--both natural and industrial--the ensemble supplies, sometimes so subtly we're not even aware of their source. This is a production to make us all take to the woods.

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