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The Rimers of Eldritch/Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You

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THE RIMERS OF ELDRITCH

Acme Arts Company
at the Wellington Avenue Church of Christ

Lanford Wilson's The Rimers of Eldritch is a tender and poetic condemnation of American society and its religious underpinnings. It's a murder mystery of sorts, written in 1966 and set in a former mining town, population 70, somewhere in the midwest. The bank is closed. The movie theater, drugstore, doctors, and lawyers are gone too. Even the town hero, a stock-car racer, burned to death in a car crash, and all that remains is the weed-infested hull of his car in the center of town.

Sounds like a typical midwestern town, you might say. The kind of place that drives young people to Chicago, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, or Saint Louis. After the auto, banking, and farming crises of the 1980s, there's a certain pertinence to Wilson's portrayal of a small town decaying to such a point that the souls of its people shrivel up and die.

It might seem then that the Acme Arts Company and director Deborah Maddox hit the mark when they decided to stage The Rimers of Eldritch. Maddox even says that she staged the play for its timeliness, pointing to recent events like the LA riots, the "much-needed" jump in the number of female political candidates, and all the hullabaloo over "family values."

In trying to tie this nearly 30-year-old play in with current political issues, Maddox completely overlooks its heart. Her politics are urban, and Eldritch is a decaying rural town. The setting is so important to the play that it seems as if Wilson wrote the town into the script as another character. "I am a forgotten child, rusting away, flaking away," says Mary Windrod, the senile old woman whose daughter committed the murder in question. Everyone in Eldritch pays attention to the town. At the end of the show Wilma Atkins says, "The heart of the town was buried when Driver died."

Maddox ignores it. The set she designed is a jumble of black platforms and miscellaneous secondhand furniture, evoking nothing except a poverty of imagination on the part of the director. Phil Martini's lighting design is equally weak. The plot of The Rimers of Eldritch flakes off in pieces, jumping back and forth in time, revealing how the murder occurs and how the townspeople react to it. These time jumps occur quickly: two ladies are gossiping on the porch--bam!--lights up on the courtroom--bam!--cut to someone's kitchen.

The Rimers of Eldritch is actually a suspenseful play, and the timing (much of it controlled by lighting) should create the suspense. Martini's fuzzy pools of amber light and the slow lighting changes weigh down Wilson's heightened sense of drama. Maddox's insensitivity to the language and plot rhythms inherent in Wilson's script threatens to turn the play into a shapeless blob.

Fortunately, Wilson's script is durable and tightly written, and the plot doesn't plod along as horribly as it might have with a lesser play. Unfortunately, such a weak understanding of the plot and its structure undercut the actors' best efforts. Most of the performers were mediocre, with the exception of Juanita Wilson, who gives a superbly eerie performance as Mary Windrod, the town soothsayer, and Carolyn Bowyer, who is equally solid as local gossip Martha Truit. With stronger directing, Gregory Chatman's portrayal of outcast Skelly Mannor could have been top-notch as well, but his key monologue at the beginning of act two needs the shaping that only a director can give.

SISTER MARY IGNATIUS EXPLAINS IT ALL FOR YOU

Acme Arts Company
at the Wellington Avenue Church of Christ

Acme Arts Company's late-night production of Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You has the potential to knock audiences off their seats with its humor. It comes close at times, thanks only to Ann Fuhrman's delightful portrayal of Sister Mary Ignatius, the old-fashioned Catholic nun who delivers a grade school catechism course on the intricacies of life.

Chicago has seen many successful versions of this play. On one level, the script seems a surefire hit, with its cutting satire and political (im)pertinence. Sister Mary's lecture is interrupted by four of her former students: one is a suicidal alcoholic, another has had two abortions, the third is the content mother of an illegitimate daughter, and the fourth is homosexual. They return to seek revenge on her for a variety of past offenses, from refusing to let them go to the bathroom during class to indoctrinating them in a religion they find cruel and absurd.

The plot is vulnerable to heavy-handed acting, and unfortunately that's what happens here. The supporting cast and director Tim Sauers seem to think the script is so funny that it's as if they were laughing throughout rehearsal--instead of concentrating on effectively staging the play so the humor could shine through on its own. The result is a rather amateur production that lacks political bite. All the same, Fuhrman's performance delivers a good laugh or two.

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