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Cole Theatre aims high with its debut production, Ecstasy

But Mike Leigh's 1979 play is more about the agony.

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"Victory of the people" is the rallying cry of Cole Theatre, a new company from Chicago-based actors Boyd Harris and Layne Manzer. So it's a bit ironic that the group's inaugural production is Mike Leigh's Ecstasy, whose downtrodden working-class characters would seem anything but victorious.

Harris, Cole Theatre's artistic director, and Manzer, managing director, say they chose the play because it's "big, ambitious." And it is that. Leigh, of course, is an Oscar-nominated filmmaker whose credits include Secrets & Lies (1996), Topsy-Turvy (1999), and Vera Drake (2004). But he's long written and directed for the stage as well; Ecstasy debuted in 1979 at London's Hampstead Theatre. Not atypically for Leigh, nudity and violence take their turns in the show, and its setting—1970s London, in a heavily Irish neighborhood near Kilburn High Road—calls for a range of working-class dialects that American actors really have to nail if the whole thing isn't to reek of phoniness. On top of that, the play takes quite a while to get going.

Yet with Ecstasy, Shade Murray—who directed A Red Orchid's award-winning production of Leigh's play Abigail's Party in 2010—delivers again. The accents are there (for the most part), and while the show's first half does, inevitably, crawl along, the cast drives the second half with surprising moments of tenderness and discovery.

Ecstasy revolves around Jean (Maura Kidwell), an alcoholic who works at a gas station. She's getting older and, never having achieved the milestones of marriage and children attained by her friends, she instead spends her time in a drunken haze, staring blankly at her shoddy flat and sleeping with random men. Jean's friend Dawn (Michaela Petro) happens to walk in on her with one such rando, whose violent exit breaks Jean's bed, setting the stage for the second act, in which her old pals reunite to fix it, drunkenly reminiscing all the while.

Tormented yet enjoyable characters are a trademark for Leigh, who carves with precision heroin addicts, smoking asthmatics, and slowly drowning alcoholics. Kidwell's Jean drags gin around her sad-looking bedsit like it's a security blanket. In the show's first half, the booze acts as a stifle, but in the second, it's her liberator, loosening her tongue up for flirting and singing old Irish songs, which she and Dawn's husband, Mick (Harris), dutifully belt.

Harris's Irish accent drifts in and out, and as the raucous Dawn, Petro is a little too in love with her own, garbling and squeaking through first half before finding a better balance in the second. But as Len, a good guy of the sort Jean typically refuses, Manzer uses his to good effect. Len pursues Jean like a mouse cautiously testing cheese in a trap. And Manzer plays him just so—tiptoeing and soft, he creeps along the edges of everything in the apartment, testing the boundaries to see if it's emotionally safe. When he asks Jean a question, he's the first in the play who actually listens to the answer.

In fact, no one's listened to Jean in quite some time, and watching Kidwell's reaction is akin to watching The Glass Menagerie's Laura as she breaks away from her toys for a dance with Jim. Our hearts lighten watching Jean croon "Danny Boy"—and sink just as heavily when her doubt settles back upon her, manifesting itself as a heavy wool sweater pulled tight around her shoulders.

While this scene hits the mark, the stakes in several others could use a boost. Toward the play's end, as the friends become more plastered, Mick begins to drag Dawn around, throwing her on the bed and groping her while Jean and Len look on. It's an eerie mirror to an earlier scene where Jean is unwillingly molested on the same bed—but the parallel is muddied, and the danger levels in both scenes never quite reach their peak.

All this action, violent and not, takes place in an aptly cramped set from Grant Sabin, a hollow place where the porcelain trinkets above Jean's bed stand in contrast to the litter of beer and gin bottles on the floor. Props also to Heath Hays's sound design, with its dripping faucets and persistent drone of children playing outdoors.

Leigh has said Ecstasy is about life experiences—all that we've done and haven't done at the end of the day. The play's finish isn't anything momentous, but rather carries the more subtle nuances of two lonely people reaching out to each other. Cole Theatre's founders may aim big, but it's in the finer points that Ecstasy succeeds.

Correction: This review has been amended to correctly reflect that Boyd Harris is Cole Theatre's artistic director—Layne Manzer its managing director—and thatVera Drake was released in 2004.

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