Johnny Bull | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Johnny Bull


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Chimera Theatre Ensemble

at Raven Theatre

In Johnny Bull, Kathleen Betsko Yale tries to evoke the helplessness of women trapped in a sexist society. She does this by creating a nightmarish microcosm of a sexist society: a young British war bride named Iris moves with her husband to a small Pennsylvania coal-mining town to live with his parents--poor Hungarian immigrants still in the grip of Old World ways. The father considers Iris a whore because she got pregnant before marriage. The mother makes her eat pigs' feet and do laundry by hand; "Women have to be strong here," she growls. Their daughter, a mildly retarded young woman named Kattie, believes her new sister-in-law is going to steal her parents, so she's openly hostile. She gives Iris a little box containing a praying mantis, which makes Iris scream hysterically. As awful as the situation is for Iris, escape is out of the question. The family's vicious dog prevents her from going out of the house alone, and even if she got past the dog, she couldn't go anywhere because she has no money.

The situation is certainly permeated with a feeling of helplessness, so in a way, Yale achieves her goal. At any rate, I felt utterly trapped for nearly three hours by this heavy-handed soap opera, which, even though it's autobiographical, is false and contrived throughout.

Johnny Bull is informed by a shallow feminism. The men are stupid, stubborn, and violent; the women are strong, forbearing, and endowed with preternatural wisdom. The trouble is all caused by men. The father is an alcoholic, the owners of the coal mine hire thugs to beat the striking miners, a neighbor turns out to be a rapist. The solutions are provided by women, who occasionally pick up a shotgun to set things right.

These simplistic characters doom the plot to a similar two-dimensional flatness. The story may conform to certain facts of Yale's life, but at crucial moments the action slides into romantic fantasy and sinks in a sweet, sentimental ooze. When Iris arrives, she gives Kattie a charm bracelet, which the younger woman refuses to wear. Sure enough, when Kattie warms up to her sister-in-law she signals her affection by proudly displaying the charm bracelet. on her wrist. When the mother tries to explain to Iris the powerful attachment between a mother and child, she actually says, "They cut the cord to the mother's belly, but never to the heart." And the father's resentment toward his family has an unintentionally funny source; if he hadn't been forced to work in the coal mines to support his wife and children, he could have become a world-class accordion player.

Some of the cast members manage to squeeze some life out of the dialogue. As Iris, Barbara Griffin is genuinely funny. Instead of reacting with shock to Iris's husband's family and their living conditions (they are proud to have a two-seat outhouse), Griffin wisely endows Iris with a droll stoicism, especially when addressing the audience with her observations and opinions. "I had never seen a gun, much less heard one fired," she says after her father-in-law lets loose with a couple of salvos from his double-barreled shotgun. "I thought I had ended up in a John Wayne picture."

As the mother, Bernadette O'Malley deftly navigates the difficult transition from a stern peasant woman to an affectionate, understanding mother-in-law. She even finds the laugh lines. When Iris chirps, "You're only as old as you feel," the mother grumps, "I should be dead then."

Randi Silberman makes Kattie's brain damage apparent, but she doesn't belabor the point. Through her speech and body language, she creates a young woman who is frightened and confused by change, which makes her character sympathetic and poignant.

The men are caricatures, but Darryl Warren manages to let some dignity show through the father's proud, stubborn personality, and Mitchell Lester radiates tension as Joe, the seemingly all-American son of immigrants who still feels the tug of his parents' Old World values.

But despite their earnest efforts, Johnny Bull remains a long, boring play that contains little poetry or insight. The dialogue is functional until Yale attempts eloquence; then it becomes mawkish. "They spend their lives ripping the coal out of the earth so others can live in comfort," the mother intones. The plot is built on highly charged events--rape, murder, wife beating--which, despite their high voltage, fail to deliver much of a shock.

Yale seems to believe that all she has to do is push the right buttons and the audience will respond. But effective drama is made out of skillfully drawn characters, not lurid events. The best playwrights let their characters dictate dialogue and plot. In contrast, Yale manipulates her characters like marionettes, forcing them to act out her fantasy of what men and women are like. She may think she has the world by a string, but that string is attached to clumsy wooden figures.

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