Shakin' The Mess Outta Misery, Chicago Theatre Company. In Western culture, the transition from childhood to adulthood in females is generally thought too graphic to inspire much in the way of coming-of-age rituals. But the young heroine of Shay Youngblood's Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery is lucky: with the onset of menarche, the women surrounding her--both the pure and the impure--prepare her for a rite they call "goin' to the river," drawing on their own experience and on folklore to instruct her in the art of "surviving with dignity" in the harsh universe of the American south in the 1920s.
Award-winning director Lisa M. Duncan deftly weaves a seamless narrative fabric from the disparate elements of Youngblood's script, which includes a cappella singing, straightforward storytelling, and even a ghost who dances through the play's action. The eight cast members' ensemble playing is as tight as their intricate vocal harmonizing, as they forge vivid, immediately intimate personalities for their 13 characters. Particularly good are Tina Wright as the stoutly self-sufficient Aunt Mae, Sandra Watson as the genial lesbian Miss Tom, and Greta Oglesby as the proud, Afrocentric Miss Lamama. This consistently excellent south-side company has created a show bright and exquisite enough to be a beacon in the gloomy early days of the 1998 season. --Mary Shen Barnidge