Victory Gardens Theater
There's something comforting about Claudia Allen's Ripe Conditions at the Victory Gardens Theater. It's not in the bopping country-bumpkin music that opens each scene. It's not in Lester and Buster, the down-home Michigan farm boys who just happen to love the same woman. It's not even in the fluffy magenta bathrobe that Lester wears when he's sick. No, Ripe Conditions is comfy-cozy because it entertains the audience for a good hour and a half and doesn't ask them to think.
Call me lazy, but sometimes I get tired of going to the theater and having to think. Most theater in this town is produced more for its social than its entertainment value, and Chicago has an honorable history of examining social issues by putting them onstage. Gang violence, religious hypocrisy, rape, greed--all have been dutifully examined in the past six months in search of a "higher truth." Ripe Conditions has no such pretensions.
It's just a silly love story, set in "a home gone to seed in rural Michigan" during the tornado season. Lester and Buster, two hayseed bachelor brothers, compete for the love of Ann, their high school lover who ran off with Abner, Lester and Buster's little brother, while Buster was serving time for shooting Lester in an argument over who deserved Ann.
The plot picks up when Ann comes back to town to attend her brother's funeral. By some fluke she gets lost and ends up asking directions, knocking at the door while Buster's buck-naked in a tin tub by the stove taking his monthly bath. Seeing the boys fans an old flame in Ann. Abner is dead, she tells them--died in the Vietnam war. She hangs around longer than she ought, drinking lemonade and Jack Daniels, getting more confused about her feelings as the boys compete for her affection. Finally she decides to leave. But then a tornado blows through the farm, and everything's up in the air again.
At its best, Ripe Conditions is a quirky and heartwarming comedy. But it's also too easy, and too nice. A lot of Chicago plays growl and bite; this one giggles. Allen tiptoes around any emotional dirt she digs up, whether it's Buster shooting Lester or the fact that a woman can actually love (and possibly make love to) three boys from the same mixed-up family.
If it hadn't been for Allen's sharp sense of dialogue and character and director Sandy Shinner's meticulous attention to detail, this play would seem frustratingly shallow. But Allen's got a keen eye for the delightfully absurd, which shows up in lines like Lester's "After Bus shot me, [the Baptists] preached a whole sermon against our family. I thought that was pretty small. Singling out people who've already had kind of a bad year."
Her script is also helped out tremendously by John Judd as Buster, Larry Neumann Jr. as Lester, and Linda Kimbrough as Ann. Neumann and Judd have excellent comic timing and create characters so genuinely likable that even their stupidity is endearing. Given the difficult task of making the audience believe that an attractive woman could fall for these idiots and even kiss them, Kimbrough does an impressive job, treading a fine line between absurdity and believability.
Patrick Kerwin has designed one of the funniest sets in town, from the overgrown shrubs outside the window to the car battery that powers the transistor radio. When the tornado hits, windows shatter, the ceiling falls down, and a chicken blows through the front door. These effects combined with Robert Shook's gray green lighting and Galen G. Ramsey's sound design make for a scene almost as exciting as the haunted house at Disney World.
Ripe Conditions is fluff, but it's good fluff. Fun fluff. And every now and then, in this gut-wrenching world of greed, violence, and general nastiness, a little fluff can do a lot of good.