Review “American Beauty Shop” (Chicago Dramatists): Powerful Illustration of an Unattractive Reality

13260258_10154226185897028_4099474909097996127_nChicago Dramatists present the World Premiere of AMERICAN BEAUTY SHOP.

Playwright Dana Lynn Formby drops us into a beauty shop in Smalltown, USA. As the economic recession rages on, locally owned businesses like the Sugar Shack are barely treading water.  Conglomerates like Walmart and Super Cuts are both catering to the working class and adding to the economic disparity. Formby anchors her play in this stomach-churning, economic realism. From lights up, the beauty shop’s struggles are obvious. Designers Sarah Watkins (scenic) and Corinne Bass (properties) create a shabby, basement vibe.  The furniture is worn.  A ‘temporarily not working’ sign is on the only chair-mounted-hair-dryer.  And Katherine Keberlein (Sue) is on the floor fixing a pipe at the shampoo sink.  Despite the depressing first glance, hope is present. Keberlein is waiting to hear about her daughter’s acceptance into MIT. She and Melissa DuPrey (Meg) also have a business deal brewing. The story is immediately engaging as we strive to catch up with their pasts to understand their anticipated futures.

13178550_10154194654562028_4301894633257757195_nUnder the skillful direction of Megan Shuchman, the talented ensemble create community.  Keberlein and DuPrey are especially tight.  When they are together, we see their affectionate partnership.  When they are apart, we hear the respect and familiarity of two people who understand how the other will react.  Keberlein’s relationship with her sister (played by Allie Long) is more complicated. Keberlein and Long have a tangled and volatile bond. We experience their long-term dysfunctional pattern. Their conversations are riddled with annoyance and protectiveness and disappointment.  Their sisterhood feels real as their lives unravel in a big messy pile of knots. They are both each other’s fierce supporter and worst nightmare. These sisters are razor-sharp at poking-the-stick into old wounds.  At one point, a sarcastic Long borrows money and then picks a fight.  Keberlein responds with a vicious dismissal. The pair are uncomfortably truthful and hurtful.  13177914_10154207257062028_7574403421079331847_n

Formby has created distinct characters with fleshy backstories. One of the quirkiest is Helen (played by Barbara Roeder Harris). Harris is hysterical as this coupon-cutting and tech-savvy senior. She delivers wise-cracking sage advice as one of the ‘roller sets.’ There are plenty of funny moments in this smart dark comedy. At the core of the story is Keberlein’s relationship with her daughter (played by Allison Torem).  Keberlein is obsessively driven to get her daughter into MIT and out of the poverty-stricken town. She continually redirects Torem to study. When Torem questions Keberlein’s true motives, the sting of their interaction leaves an ugly and disturbing mark.

AMERICAN BEAUTY SHOP is a powerful illustration of the cycle of poverty. Formby gives us real people stuck by their choices, their comfort levels and the surrounding circumstances.  She even ends the play with two ways; the best outcome and the worst outcome. It’s a poignant message of how life can change drastically in an instant.  AMERICAN BEAUTY SHOP is the unattractive, sad reality of too many Americans.

Running Time: One hour and fifty minutes includes an intermission

At Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago

Written by Dana Lynn Formby

Directed by Megan Shuchman

Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 7:30pm

Sundays at 3pm

Thru June 5th

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