The Tall Boy brings Tandy Cronyn back to Chicago—and Germany | Theater Preview | Chicago Reader

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The Tall Boy brings Tandy Cronyn back to Chicago—and Germany

Current events have caught up with this solo play about refugee children.

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Actor Tandy Cronyn, whose one-woman show The Tall Boy plays at Stage 773 for a limited engagement December 5 through 15, came across the source material for the project by chance. "It was a long and winding road," recalls the 74-year-old Cronyn, whose distinguished career has ranged from Broadway musicals to classical drama at the Stratford Festival.

Having had success as poet Emily Dickinson in William Luce's one-woman play The Belle of Amherst, she considered creating solo performance pieces about Victorian explorer Mary Kingsley and imagist poet H.D. "I explored several possibilities over years of work that came to naught," Cronyn says. "Then Jeff Sweet recommended I look into doing something about one of the extraordinary women war correspondents of World War I and World War II—people who broke the mold for their time."

Cronyn has known Sweet—the Chicago-bred author of such plays as Porch, Flyovers, and The Value of Names, all successes at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater in the 1970s and '80s—since 1970, when she was a member of the resident acting company at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's playwrights' conference. In 1998 she starred at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in The Falcon's Pitch, Sweet's adaptation of Shakespeare's three Henry VI dramas, in which Cronyn portrayed Margaret of Anjou, one of the Bard's greatest female roles.

Among the possible subjects Sweet recommended that Cronyn consider for a solo show was Kay Boyle, a well-known American writer of fiction, poetry, and journalism in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, until she was blacklisted during the McCarthy-era red scare. Boyle was ahead of her time in warning about the rising threat posed by Hitler; her 1936 novel Death of a Man depicted the rise of Nazism in Austria. Boyle lived in Germany after World War II, covering the Nuremberg trials for the New Yorker.

Browsing through Boyle's work, Cronyn encountered a tragic tale titled "The Lost" in the 1951 short-story collection The Smoking Mountain: Stories of Postwar Germany. It struck a chord. Rather than portray Boyle onstage, she decided, she would bring Boyle's art to life instead.

Adapted from Boyle's story by British playwright Simon Bent, The Tall Boy is a monologue by an American relief worker in rural Bavaria after the liberation of Germany by Allied troops. The woman—matron of a displaced persons camp—recounts her experience with three war orphans, all boys: a 12-year-old Italian, a 14-year-old Pole, and a 15-year-old Czech. During the war, each of them had attached himself to an American army unit as a company "mascot." Now the youngsters are desperate to leave war-ravaged Europe, hoping to be reunited with their army buddies in America. It is up to Cronyn's character, the matron, to help the kids find American sponsors—or to break the bad news that there are none.

Only the Czech teen—the "tall boy" of the title—actually has a man who's willing to bring him to the U.S. The GI, an auto mechanic in Tennessee, had promised to adopt him, but there's a problem: the American government is unwilling to sponsor an interracial adoption, and the soldier is Black.

The Tall Boy is an actor's showpiece that requires Cronyn to play multiple roles. In addition to the Matron, the story's narrator, she also portrays the three children, who speak English in the accents they have absorbed from their American pals. The Italian kid speaks in a "dese dem dose" Jersey Shores patois, while the Czech boy's drawl reflects his "imprinting" by a southerner. Other characters Cronyn portrays include a Nazi concentration camp capo.

Cronyn believes the character of the storyteller is modeled on Kathryn Hulme, a friend of Kay Boyle's who was part of the United Nations team sent into postwar Europe to try to take care of millions of displaced persons. In preparing for The Tall Boy, Cronyn also researched Hulme's account of her often heartrending experiences in her 1953 book The Wild Place. The title refers to the English name for Wildflecken, originally built in 1937 by Hitler as a training camp for Nazi SS ski troops and later turned into a refugee camp.

Cronyn, who attended boarding school in Bavaria as a teenager in the 1960s, has previous experience with shows set in Germany. In 1968, she took over the role of Sally Bowles, an English expat carving out a singing career in 1931 Berlin, in the original Broadway production of Cabaret. And in 2005 she starred at Victory Gardens Theater in Jeffrey Sweet's drama Berlin '45, playing a German survivor fearfully awaiting her city's occupation by Soviet troops. The Tall Boy marks her first appearance in Chicago since then.

As her name suggests, Cronyn is the daughter of one of the American theater's most famed and formidable acting couples. Her British-born mother, Jessica Tandy, created the role of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire and won an Oscar for her lead performance in the movie Driving Miss Daisy. Cronyn's father, Canadian actor Hume Cronyn, frequently costarred with Tandy on stage (The Fourposter, The Gin Game, Foxfire) and screen (The World According to Garp, Cocoon, To Dance With the White Dog, Camilla).

Cronyn began working on The Tall Boy in 2010 and premiered the show two years later. In 2014, she performed it at the United Solo Festival in New York City (the world's largest solo theater festival), where it won the award for best adaptation.

Now, in light of the Trump administration's policies of breaking up migrant families at the southern border, the material's description of the plight of traumatized unaccompanied children carries an especially timely resonance.

"Oh, yes," says Cronyn, who reprised the piece last September as part of the tenth annual United Solo's "best of the festival" programming. "Current events have caught up with the play."  v

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