Considering how realistic a play Ladyhouse Blues is, Chameleon Productions' set is strange--the backdrop for Craig Griffin's kitchen consists of eight doors and a window. Are these doors meant to suggest the parts of the house we never see? A door of course suggests people who'll enter or leave by it, so the effect of so many unopened doors inevitably conveys a claustrophobic isolation. Claustrophobia is certainly central to this tale, but the surreal set is overkill.
In Kevin O'Morrison's Ladyhouse Blues, what doesn't happen to the characters is what happens in the play. The title says it all: the setting is a "ladyhouse," a home where four sisters and their widowed mother act out their different blues. It's a searing hot August in 1919, and the men still haven't returned from World War I. The Madden women have been transplanted from the farm they dimly remember to a Saint Louis tenement without electricity or a phone. They boil sheets on laundry day, wait for letters from their men, and occasionally take in a silent movie. Surrounded by the sounds of street criers, they're immured like the daughters in Lorca's House of Bernarda Alba in a bleak neighborhood that seems dead without its menfolk.
To see Ladyhouse Blues is to take a time trip back seven decades. O'Morrison's play is a richly detailed slice of lost life; like a well-preserved family album, it teems with minutely observed details. The youngest, most hopeful Madden sisters--and the most anxious to leave home--are Eylie and Terry, who are waitresses at a hash house. Eylie, 16, wants to move out to live with her Greek boyfriend, a prizefighter. Terry, the most political of the Maddens, has just been elected a delegate to the World Conference of Working Women in Washington, D.C.
Dot, who's married to a wealthy easterner and pregnant, spends her days drinking on the sly and reading books, trying to make herself worthy of her husband. Helen, the oldest and bitterest sister, married a war hero--with a German surname--so the neighbor ladies regularly revile her for her "kaiser lover." Helen is an outcast for another reason, too--because she's contracted tuberculosis, she's all but quarantined to her family's house.
Liz, the head of the house, is a stubborn, old-fashioned, and very resilient mother, like Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, a life force trying to keep her troubled clan together until the one Madden man, her son Bud, comes back from overseas. (For Liz, the man who's not there is more present than the daughters who are.) Her clashes with her children, old arguments revived, provide the play's half-hearted conflicts: a staunch xenophobe, Liz complains that Terry's turning into a Bolshevik, that Helen abandoned her faith to marry a Catholic, that Eylie will marry a "greaser" and desert them, and that Dot has lost her faith and can see life only as pointless suffering.
Pointless suffering is what this play thrives on. Its subject is not women who enjoyed a wartime taste of freedom and independence and now don't want to return to the kitchen; that liberation was for World War II and Rosie the Riveter. It's about how, as Liz puts it, "Life's being squeezed out of us." And not just them--the family learns that Bud died of cholera during the Navy's doomed attack on Bolshevik Russia. This proves the major "event" of the play, but it's a strange source of conflict, a clash over the mother's refusal to ask for the $4,000 the Navy owes her for Bud's death. Liz refuses to fill out the formal request for the money; to her, that would imply that the Navy has the right to refuse it--and she won't give them that power over her (admittedly a stupid argument, but the play treats it like gospel).
When I last saw Ladyhouse, a decade ago at Wisdom Bridge Theatre, it felt perfect both in atmosphere and acting; it didn't cover much, but its moments mattered. They count a lot less in Chameleon's well-intentioned but unfocused revival. For a "culturally-diverse women's theatre company," an all-female script is a godsend, but Amy Ludwig's staging lacks both urgency and an ensemble tightness; these women seem prematurely defeated. The important moments pass as uneventfully as the ordinary ones, and too little silence surrounds what's significant. At the end, when the sisters decide to take a rare walk around the neighborhood, we don't feel what we're meant to--their pleasure at getting away, however briefly, from hard times; it's just another walk. If O'Morrison shaped this slice of life, you sure can't see the shaping on this stage.
Sincere work comes from Barbara Johnson as the bustling, grumbling, worrying, and--despite everything--fiercely devoted mother, a woman who hides some feelings not at all and others too damn well. Lacking open affection from their mother, the sisters must seek it elsewhere: Emily Hooper as Eylie and Maricela Ochoa as Terry register the hunger of young lives wanting to move on. Because Dot gets only one outburst to suggest her sorrows (a fervent diatribe about life's lack of purpose), the actress playing her must make that desperation follow from the little we see; but as Salli Richardson plays her, Dot's far too mellow and content in her prospective motherhood.
The best work comes from Consuelo Allen; her weary movements eloquently suggest the lifetime of hard work that's bringing Helen to an early death. More than any other Madden, Helen has earned the right to sing the ladyhouse blues.