Review “Plainsong” (Signal Ensemble Theatre): A Story to Savor

The winter continues to plummet us in cold and snow. An attainable escape is within the pages of a good book.  And an even better respite is experiencing a good story without reading a word.

Signal Ensemble Theatre presents the Chicago Premiere of PLAINSONG.

Playwright Eric Schmiedl impressively adapted Kent Haruf’s novel for stage.  The heartwarming tale is set in a small town in Colorado.  The story intertwines multiple family dramas into an unexpected community.  It doesn’t romanticize reality. This isn’t Mayberry where the entire town confronts and solves the one issue for the happily ever-after.  People have problems.  Lives are complicated.  Family isn’t there for each other.  Strangers are.  It’s home-baked goodness laced with life’s sour apples.

Director Bries Vannon has his hands full telling this epic tale.  He skillfully orchestrates a cast of nineteen actors.  Vannon uses Signal’s versatile space for interactive storytelling.  The audience are observers but they are definitely sitting in the town of Holt.  Set Designer Buck Blue transforms the theatre into a one big wooden room.  In two corners, large cut-out rectangles give the illusion of windows peeking into this room.  Vannon continually places different ensemble members in those areas as narrators.  These window-like structures are behind sections of the audience.  The location make the information sharing seem more inclusive.  It’s as if we are all reading the book and making discoveries together… organically.  The virtual feel keeps the audience engaged.

Vannon paces his large talented ensemble with an easy, sweeping speed. There are many stories and more scenes.  The transitions are smooth as Blue’s simplistic scenery moves in and out of the woodwork.  These townsfolk come alive with both authentic human kindness and cruelty. The cantankerous bachelor brothers Vincent Lonergan (Harold) and Jon Steinhagen (Raymond) are hilarious.  The bold and awkward contrast between them and the beautiful and subdued Elizabeth Stenholt (Victoria) is brilliant.  (I want Steinhagen to write a spin-off sitcom pilot for the trio. It would become must-see TV.)  Other noteworthy performances are produced by the capable Katie Worthington (Maggie), the brutish Rudy Galvan (Russsell), and the acerbic Barbara Roeder Harris (Mrs. Stearns).  And a nod out to the adorable Jack Edwards (Bobby), every line he uttered made me smile.

This large ensemble morphs into a strong community in their storytelling.  It’s not a page turner as much as a story to savor.  The conflicts are relatable.  There is either a charming small-town fix or deep-rooted small-town defect.  Life is told to imperfect perfection in PLAINSONG.   

Running Time:  Two hours and ten minutes includes an intermission

At Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice

Based on the novel written by Kent Haruf

Adapted by Eric Schmiedl

Directed by Bries Vannon

Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8pm

Sundays at 3pm

Thru March 8th

Buy Tickets at www.signalensemble.com

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