Natural Affection, North Lakeside Players, at the North Lakeside Cultural Center. Director Sara Rosen deserves some sort of prize for mounting the least heartwarming Christmas play in the English language. William Inge's overlooked drama--it tanked on Broadway in 1963 and has never before been produced locally--condenses two days in the hardscrabble life of resourceful Sue into an Arthur Miller-like stew of frustrated ambitions. Residing in a tiny Chicago apartment with her commitment-shy slacker boyfriend Bernie, she's suddenly confronted by the son she gave up for adoption, now a teenage juvenile delinquent on Christmas holiday from reform school. His destabilizing presence causes all the submerged resentments among Sue, Bernie, and their neighbors to erupt in ever worsening verbal attacks. By the time Christmas is over, everyone's life is in shambles.
In the cramped quarters of the North Lakeside Cultural Center, once a private home, audience and actors are pinned against opposite walls of a brightly lit foyer. It takes a full act for the cast to rid themselves of understandable self-consciousness, but once they do, they dive deeply enough into Inge's cynicism to make any Scrooge's heart swell. Though the performers are young--half are freshly graduated--they give this world-weary play a surprising maturity. But it's the astonishing vulnerability of Mara Monserrat as Sue that lifts this two-and-a-half-hour production to its greatest heights. Her struggle to maintain some shred of decency even as her own worst self takes over is thrilling to behold.