Close-at-Hand/I Survived St. Jude's . . . and All I Got Was This Plaid Skirt | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Close-at-Hand/I Survived St. Jude's . . . and All I Got Was This Plaid Skirt


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at Club Lower Links


at the Garage

When I went to see Marcia Wilkie, I thought she was going to do stand-up comedy. I hate stand-up comics. They always seem to be insulting their audiences or their mothers or themselves--anything to be funny, because funny is what stand-up is all about.

So I was glad to find that Wilkie is about as far as you can get from a stand-up comic. That's not to say she isn't funny--she's a very funny woman, though she doesn't try to be, it's just something that happens while she's telling her stories. Her humor is a tool.

Because more than anything Wilkie is a storyteller. She tells tales that could happen to you, or me, or the woman next to you. All five vignettes in Close-at-Hand are about women; three are about lesbians. These are stories a general audience rarely hears: about a 14-year-old's desperate fear that her sister has caught her making out with her girlfriend; about a college freshman's unrequited love for a woman with "perfectly shaved legs, even above the knees"; about a third-grade girl tortured by her classmates for befriending a mentally retarded girl; about a grown woman dealing with her parents in the wake of her coming out; about a homeless woman who loses her best friend. Between these stories Diana Laffey sings, and her soul mother's voice provides calm transitions that somehow hold all the different pieces together.

Wilkie is to lesbians what Larry Kramer is to gay men: she's a voice. Her stories aren't overtly political, and she doesn't try to "explain" why some women are sexually attracted to other women (which really isn't a question worth asking); she simply explores what it's like to be gay in a world that often refuses to understand.

Wilkie's power lies in her ability to weave poignantly human tales. "Crack Up Laughing" is about a homeless woman. The minute the lights came up I said to myself, "Oh no, not another bag lady . . . everybody wants to play bag ladies." I hate people who play bag ladies almost as much as I hate stand-up comics. But Wilkie's physical characterization isn't overdone, her voice is natural and effective, and her story shows an astounding attention to detail. Jerilyn notices things like the "white china spoon fingernails" on the hands of Beth, the volunteer from Barrington. But Jerilyn isn't insipid enough to want to be like Beth--she knows Beth has a lot of problems. When she goes into one of her "Me and Paul was cracking up laughing" spiels, her laughter is contagious. But when we laugh, Wilkie turns around and pokes us in the gut with a bit of reality.

Many of Wilkie's characters show a self-deprecating or bittersweet humor. In "Any Connections," a desperately sad woman leaves the Girl Scout camp where she's fallen in love with a fellow counselor, "knowing that unless you create a reason, there is no reason to see that person again." Suddenly, as she's pulling out of the driveway, her friend comes running toward her, exclaiming that she wants to try a relationship. The woman stops the car, explaining that "I had best not drive, if I am hallucinating."

In "Dayna Dear," a 14-year-old girl tells how she stole her mother's college psychology book to read the chapter on human sexuality. She finds a short section on homosexuality in the back. "I read it," she tells her girlfriend, "but I don't know if we are them or not." The book says that kids grow out of it and that a lot of people can be helped with counseling or therapy. These girls are desperate, they have no one to talk to, and they're about to be found out. This was maybe the most poignant moment of the evening, because Wilkie followed the story with an excerpt from a Chicago daily newspaper about two pubescent girls who wrapped their arms around each other and sat down on the tracks in front of an oncoming Metra train. The article quotes sources declaring that the girls were popular, stars of sports teams, and seemed happy. "It is incomprehensible to us," the principal is quoted as saying. "What pressure induced these two young women to take their lives?"

One problem is that Wilkie's delivery is virtually the same for all her characters. And she has a habit of letting her voice fall at the ends of words or phrases. That deadpan delivery makes her humor shine, but it also makes each character just a little too like the others. Still, a good story can easily make up for small weaknesses in delivery.

I Survived St. Jude's . . . and All I Got Was This Plaid Skirt, a one-woman mime and puppet show by Tina Steele, has a lot of potential. But the show I saw Friday at the Garage didn't come close to reaching it--it was so thin I actually wondered if I'd inadvertently left before it was over.

I Survived St. Jude's is supposed to explore such Catholic issues as celibacy, the church's oppression of women, abortion, and "definitions of humanity." But "explore" isn't exactly the word--what Steele does seems more like pointing at an issue, acknowledging its existence, and then moving on. For example: We all know that Catholic priests take a vow of celibacy. We all imagine how hard that must be. Steele shows us. She reaches in her pants, pulls out a wonderfully lifelike penis, sticks it to a large foam hand of God descending from above, and receives the oh-so-coveted priest's writ. Later the priest must resist the temptation that rises while viewing pictures of topless women in National Geographic. How many times have we heard this before?

Steele's various masks, marionettes, and life-size puppets are interesting, but she manipulated them poorly and wasn't able to achieve any illusion of reality. She also seemed rushed and nervous. But with a little more development, she might be on to something.

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