My Soul to Keep | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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My Soul to Keep


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Footsteps Theatre Company

Frankly, my feelings about Footsteps Theatre Company's production of Vita Dennis's My Soul to Keep are torn. On the one hand, I can't help but praise Dennis (a Footsteps founder) for her honesty and courage in writing and acting in a play about surviving childhood sexual abuse. The production must be the culmination of years of struggle for her--dealing with guilt, anger, fear, and most crippling of all for a writer, denial and ambivalence.

And I have to admire the company for tackling an issue like sexual abuse, daring to say what many are too afraid or ashamed or angry to say: that children do not easily overcome sexual abuse, and that these horrifying traumas come back to haunt adults 20, 30, or 40 years later. A recent Tribune article estimated that "one in three girls suffers some kind of sexual molestation before the age of 18." That means there are plenty of wounded adults out there who would benefit from knowing that they are not alone. Without a doubt, this play will reach many such survivors. Certainly, the night I saw My Soul to Keep, there were plenty in the audience moved beyond words by Dennis's story, people whose eyes teared up during the second act, when Dennis's character, Reta, first confronts her feelings about the father who raped her as a child. Some later admitted during the Thursday-night discussion after the play (conducted by a psychologist who specializes in sexual-abuse cases) that they too had been victims of sexual abuse.

On the other hand, I cannot say that Dennis's play is flawless, or that it will move--or even interest--anyone who did not suffer some sort of abuse as a child. Parts of My Soul to Keep are awkwardly written, much of Dennis's dialogue is flat and pedestrian, and the story, especially the first two- thirds of it, just pokes along, despite some wonderful performances by Melinda Tomelleri, Erin Creighton, Tom Overmyer, and Chuck Spencer. For all of her sincerity as a playwright, and as an actor, Dennis has written a play that, with the exception of a harrowingly intense ending, is wooden, stiff, and inhibited.

Of course, didactic theater, theater with an overt point of view, is always difficult to pull off. On rare occasions a playwright manages to balance dramatic needs--interesting characters and situation, something approaching a well-told story--with the play's message. Mary Gallagher's De Donde? succeeds. But more often than not, a playwright will run roughshod over the medium's demands in her hurry to trot out that all-important message. Such plays often are preaching to the converted, and leave everyone else out in the cold. I'm afraid this is what has happened to My Soul to Keep.

It doesn't help that Dennis has been cast as the main character in her own play. This may sound strange, since Reta is an autobiographical character--Dennis describes her as "a combination of my experience, and the experiences of others"--but Dennis doesn't have the range to be convincing as Reta. She consistently underplays all but Reta's most extreme emotions, turning a character who supposedly tightly controls her feelings into one who seems to have no feelings at all.

Only when Reta is deep in psychological crisis is Dennis able to portray her convincingly, and then her performance is uncanny. This actress, who in the first act seemed unable to show the difference between concern and annoyance, suddenly is able to portray with extraordinary subtlety the changes Reta goes through in the second act, confronting her past. So abrupt, so radical is the change in Dennis that one can't help wondering if this is acting or possession.

But usually Dennis's range seems limited, and all the more so when compared with Overmyer's warm, resonant performance as Reta's loving, nurturing husband, Michael. It is truly refreshing to see a play in which a male actor is allowed to express the full spectrum of emotions we men feel--not just that restricted band of feelings David Mamet and other chest-thumping writers prefer. This strong, well-rounded male character is all the more remarkable when you consider that Michael appears in a play that's essentially about women's victimization by men.

You might have expected all the men to be like Reta's father, Wally, the unrepentent child molester. Even as he lies in a hospital dying of brain cancer, he still lusts after the passing candy stripers. Chuck Spencer plays this slimeball so well that by the end of the play you can't help but hate him. (Which may explain why he doesn't make an appearance at the discussion afterward.)

All the fine performances in the world, however, can't make up for the fact that, as a playwright, Dennis has not done all she could--especially in the first act--to keep the audience engaged. She fails to build any dramatic tension, choosing instead to set out the facts of the case as baldly, blandly, and coolly as possible. For example, from the word go we know--thanks to a prologue set in Reta's childhood--that her father raped her. We also know that 20 years later Reta remains angry, and that she has not spoken to him since he and her mother split up over this incident. But we don't really know how Reta feels about these events. Reta's feelings are a closed book, a fact that robs the first two-thirds of the play of an emotional subtext, and makes My Soul to Keep seem more a case study than a bit of drama.

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