I wish I could like this story, a lighthearted tale of three sisters dying young in Chicago ninety or so years ago, more than I do. The Hub Theatre presents it briskly and stages it imaginatively, and it features some good performances – including excellent work by Chris Stinson. But in the end, it doesn’t seem like playwright Philip Dawkins takes his story seriously. So why should I?
Dawkins creates the Fails as an immigrant couple (Tia Shearer and Maggie Erwin) who come to Chicago and establish themselves as clockmakers. Eventually they give birth to the sober, responsible Gerty (Carolyn Kashner); to Jenny June (Shearer), who yearns to become a competitive swimmer; and to the beautiful and perpetually delighted Nelly (Erwin). Time passes; mom gives birth to a stillborn child and falls into depression; thereafter Jenny June discovers an infant in a basket in the close by Chicago River. The baby carries a snake in his hand, but it is the snake, and not the baby, who comes to be named Moses. The baby (Stinson) they call John N.
Mom and dad drive into Lake Michigan and drown and Gerty thereafter assumes control of the business and the family. They manage to make it to adulthood, where a slick young investor named Mortimer Mortimer (Well! There’s a subtle touch!), played earnestly and sweetly by Michael Kevin Darnall, falls in love with each of them in their turn.
Too bad for him! They all die – one heroically, one ridiculously, and one in a way tragic enough to recall Orpheus and Eurydice – leaving Mortimer bereft, riddled with sadness and loneliness. (All of this is clear, by the way, in the first five minutes.)
There is more here – involving animals and clocks and whatnot – but if it coheres into a working story I have missed it entirely. Dawkins has saddled his characters with some awful dialogue. I am thinking in particular of the courtship of Mortimer and Nell, the first of the three sisters he woos. Nell – who admittedly is young and a little sheltered – sounds like an eight-year-old playing at being an adult. It would take a magician to make this dialogue sound realistic; Erwin is not a magician.
Except for Mortimer, none of the characters really grow during the course of the play. Shearer gives us an attractively tough and aggressive Jenny June; unfortunately, all the other characters she plays show us the same face. Kasner does better with Gerty, whose default mode of brisk formality hides a warm heart. Kasner gets both parts convincingly.
If Stinson’s character were in the modern age we would say that he suffered from a mild form of autism – maybe Asperger’s Syndrome – but this being the twenties, we say only that he gets on better with animals than people. Stinson gets that character, absorbing each tentative insight about human behavior like a spelunker finding his way through a cave, and we find ourselves cheering him on as he does it.
The ripe aroma of cuteness hangs over the play. As the story stretches over about a hundred twenty-five years, much is told in narrative, and the scenes occasionally seem little more than illustrations. Rose McConnell is the snake and a dog and several inanimate objects, including a gramaphone and a grandfather clock.
FAILURE: A LOVE STORY
Closes May 18, 2014
The Hub Theatre
9431 Silver King Court
1 hour, 40 minutes, no intermission
Fridays thru Sundays
Dawkins suffuses the play with music – some popular music from the days of the Fails, and some more modern music which Dawkins wrote with Patrick Calhoun. Erwin has a nice voice, but the remaining cast is more notable for its acting chops.
So: in summary, this is a play in which most of the characters die and the rest of them are bereft. Also, the animals die or are otherwise lost, and ultimately much of the furniture gets destroyed. On the other hand, the protagonist has a cute name, and there is music. If there is wisdom or insight to be gained from this exercise I do not see it but, of course, your result may vary.
Hub gives it the old college try. Betsy Muller sketches a lovely version of old-time Chicago as the backdrop, with the fine old Lumber Street Bridge accurately portrayed in the foreground. Patrick Calhoun does some excellent Foley work; and one of the great pleasures of this play is listening to the actors create the sounds of a house full of chiming and rattling clocks.
It’s just not enough: Failure is not a success. I have seen many delightful and imaginative productions in Hub Theatre over the years. Regrettably, Failure: A Love Story is not one of them.
Failure: A Love Story by Philip Dawkins . Directed by Matt Bassett . Featuring Michael Kevin Darnall, Carolyn Kashner, Tia Shearer, Maggie Erwin, Chris Stinson and Rose McConnell . Scenic design: Betsy Muller, Lighting design: Catherine Girardi . Sound design and music composition: Patrick Calhoun . Costume design: Maria Vetsch . Props: Suzanne Maloney. Technical director: Christian Sullivan . Stage manager: Keta Newborn . Produced by Hub Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.