A Death in the Family | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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A Death in the Family


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StreetSigns, at Shattered Globe Theatre

James Agee's 1957 memoir-novel is an elegy that resonates with hard-earned poetry and childlike lyricism. It depicts his family, living a quiet, stable life in Knoxville before World War I, stricken with a change too great for a child to grasp: Agee's unflinching words preserve the boy's paralysis when his father dies. His reactions to this sudden attack on his childhood feel dead-on: children refuse to admit tragedies that adults accept too easily. Yet for both the denial is much the same.

Familiar through the Pulitzer-winning adaptation in the film All the Way Home, Agee's tale is catnip to a strong ensemble like StreetSigns. Framed by Roger Smart's nostalgic projections and environmental set, director Derek Goldman's cinematic adaptation employs multiple narration, folk music, and stylized movement (the last all too insistently). Stage pictures aside, Goldman knows that this play for voices, like Under Milk Wood, builds to its own climax. In this glowing production Steven Fedoruk is full of hangdog pathos as the ineffectual alcoholic brother; Sheila O'Malley patiently teaches her nephews and niece how final death is; Kate Fry erupts in inconsolable anger at God's theft of her husband; Joseph Wycoff is protective and doomed as the lost father; and George Brant is quietly persuasive as the neighbor who helps the children value the parent they've lost.

It's as if Agee had frozen a moment in words, and so in time, and now the theater can unlock that moment as if he'd just written it--as if it had just happened. This Death in the Family offers that kind of epiphany.

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