The Gift Theatre presents the Chicago premiere of BETHANY. A few things about this bracing look back at our recent (and lingering) Great Recession actually reminded me of an earlier era of economic hardship: the ‘80s. Maybe it was the Trumpian motivational speaker (a slithering James D. Farruggio) espousing his how-to-get-rich philosophy, the failing Saturn car dealership where our protagonist, Crystal (a radiant Hillary Clemens) toils, the job-shedding economy that has everyone scratching for survival or the synthy music score, but Bethany feels both ripped from recent headlines and Reagan-era retro.
What’s different about this most recent downturn? Perhaps it’s a little harder to identify its victims. Unlike the urban slums we saw in the ‘80s, the biggest impact is being felt in the housing market — in the outskirts and suburbs of our cities. That house with the lights out? The owners were foreclosed on two months ago. Same thing that with that dark house next door to it.
That smiling, young saleswoman who’s aggressively trying to sell you that Saturn? She lost her home and was recently living in her car. You wouldn’t know that though, because she’s keeping up appearances. And that supremely confident motivational speaker who looks like a Mitt Romney Master of the Universe? He has his own secrets.
Clemens portrays the elusive character of Crystal as an always “on” and “up” salesperson. Whether she’s trying to sell a Saturn while hiding her own desperation, or portraying the part of a stable single mother when meeting with a case worker, Crystal is always playing to her audience. Clemens not only convincingly gears up for each command performance, but she (and director Marti Lyons) take moments to pause and show us how her gears actually turn before she springs into action. The two scenes with Susaan Jamshidi’s caseworker, Toni, are especially tense and well-executed in showing us the stakes of Crystal’s plight.
Because despite appearances, Crystal is in big trouble. She desperately needs to sell some cars, because she’s squatting in a vacant home that is actually already housing Gary (Paul D’Addario), a homeless man who espouses a grim philosophy of impending civilization collapse. Crystal and Gary form an unlikely Odd Couple – he’s a smelly survivalist living off of the grid, and she’s a fastidious survivor desperately trying to get back on it.
Some of the play’s biggest laughs come from these interactions between this duo. As Bethany develops, Crystal’s ambitions also intersect with Farruggio’s motivational speaker, Charlie, whose initial appearances bring additional comic relief, until the story turns darker with a noir-like denouement and some especially tense, convincing fight scenes (superb fight choreography courtesy of John Tovar).
Some other highlights of Bethany:
- The staging (Scenic designer Courtney O’Neill and assistant scenic designer, Isabel Strauss: Take a bow!) that makes ingenious use of rotating wall panels in the Gift’s intimate storefront space to quickly switch between the two locations of the play.
- The evocative look back at the ground-breaking relationship marketing cult of the Saturn Corporation (1985-2000), the “different kind of car company” experiment launched by GM to sell American autos to an import-loving car buying market. Did Saturn salesmen actually sing to new car buyers as they drove off the lot and host annual “homecomings” for all Saturn owners at their Tennessee factory? Shockingly so!
- The unflagging energy and vulnerability of Hillary Clemens’ turn as Crystal. She’s the motor that keeps Bethany going – and despite being in nearly every scene of this 90-minute play, she never lets her foot off of the gas.
Bethany’s pulpy ending may leave some audience members believing that this is more a night of entertainment, than illumination, but this would be wrong.
Theater should make us look at our lives and ask important questions, and Bethany has something relevant to ask about the American Dream of being “successful” and owning our own home. Was this the cause of the Great Recession or the cost of it? Is the consumer model that our economy relies on in so many ways no longer sustainable? Are any dreams involving material possessions ultimately hollow? These are worthy points to ponder that should be taken afterwards to one of Jefferson Park’s public establishments for further discussion.
Running Time: 90 minutes without an intermission.
At the Gift Theater, 4802 N. Milwaukee
Written by Laura Marks
Directed by Marti Lyons
Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm; Sundays at 2:30pm
Through November 23
Buy tickets at http://thegifttheatre.org or call (773) 283-7071.
Photo courtesy of Claire Demos.
For more reviews and information on Chicago theatre, visit Theatre in Chicago.