For a play that is so riotously funny, the laughs easily give way to the famed Tennessee Williams' sorrow in "A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur."
The perfect production, which opened Friday night at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, is one of the less frequently produced Williams plays, but the character portraits are familiar to anyone who knows Williams.
The Creve Coeur of the title is a real park in St. Louis, Williams' hometown. It’s the kind of play where families take weekends for a row in a lagoon and picnics. But in a larger sense, and perhaps in Williams sense, the real meaning of the title is found in the the French word "crevecoeur," which means heartbreak.
And that’s what this play is about, a lovely sunday for a trip to heartbreak for four women brought together in a tiny apartment in an untidy part of town. There is an empty spot in each woman’s heart, and each finds a way to fill that spot with a dose of fantasy mixed with a smaller dose of reality.
Bodey (Kelly Doherty) and Dorothea (Kay Allmand) live together in an apartment filled with every knick and knack you can imagine. The torrent of a variety of colors is an assault on the eyes and plays an intimate part in the development of the story. The set design by Courtney O’Neill captures all of the crampiness of this dwelling with a marvelous sense of space.
Bodey is a large German woman who has worked at the same shoe factory for over two decades. She is a woman who brings her Germanic sense of order to life and revels in the responsibility for daily life that she has appropriated from Dorothea. She is empty of dreams for herself, but harbors a continuing fantasy that her twin brother will be the husband for Dorothea, a fantasy that Dorothea forcefully dissuades at every turn.
Dorothea is a civics teacher harboring the dream of landing the high school principal with whom she spent one night as a temporary lover in his car. She fills the hole in her heart with the shaky belief that marriage and family is just on her horizon. She’s a compulsive exerciser who willingly gives up her responsibilities to Bodey while jealously working to preserve her seductiveness.
Entering the fray is Helena (Molly Rhode), a companion teacher with Dorothea who has arrived on a Sunday to collect half the rent for the more exclusive apartment she and Dorothea will share. She fills the hole in her heart with the fantasy of being a high bred lady who deserves nothing but the best in tea parties and bridge partners. Her greatest fear is being lonely, and her insistence on Dorothea joining her is her salve to the wounds of being alone.
The last member of this unlikely quartet is the upstairs neighbor, Sophie Gluck (Karen Estrada). She speaks only German and is trying to find a way to cope with the recent death of her mother in the apartment in which they lived. Sophie has always been a regular visitor downstairs, but she is more determined than ever to avoid being back in what has become her own personal house of horrors.
These four women are guided down both individual and common paths under the delicate touch of director Leda Hoffmann. The one thing this play needs is a special sense of clarity for each character. It only works with four distinct personalities that cross only briefly. And Hoffmann makes that happen.
Meanwhile, the four women in this cast could well be a murderer’s row of acting talent in this city. Led by Doherty who has an unmatched presence on the stage, all of them are perfect examples of how great actors stay within themselves. They never let their world get away without the kind of restraint only experienced actors have.
This play may be one that is rarely seen, but the production at Chamber makes it both valuable and vital.
"A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur" runs through Oct. 16 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.
Production credits. Director Leda Hoffmann; Production Stage Manager, Judy Martel; Dialect Coach Michelle Lopez-Rios; Scenic Designer, Courtney O’Neill; Costume Designer Andrea Bouck; Lighting Designer, Noele Stollmack; Sound Designer, Megan B. Henninger; Production Manager, Brandy kline, Properties Master, Maddy Yee.
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