Saturday, July 14, 2018

Best Face Forward: In Its Chicago Premiere at Steep, 'Linda' Addresses Feminine Aging (and Much More) with Considerable Depth -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a recent play by Penelope Skinner
directed by Robin Witt
Steep Theatre Co., Chicago
Thru August 18

As Penelope Skinner's 2015 drama, Linda, begins, the title character--wonderfully played at Steep Theatre by Kendra Thulin--has a life many would likely find enviable.

She is a highly-successful, "award winning" senior executive with the Swan Beauty Corp., where she has long championed marketing campaigns focused on holistic beauty across all ages and appearances.

Proudly wearing the same size as 15 years earlier, she has great clothes, plenty of poise, an attractive young assistant, Luke (Omer Abbas Salem), a handsome, literate husband, Neil (Peter Moore), two intelligent daughters--teenage Bridget (Caroline Phillips) and twenty-something Alice (Destini Huston)--and a killer kitchen in a posh home, presumably somewhere in England (as everyone employs a British accent).

But within a matter of days, things start to unravel and existing fissures are further revealed.

I'll be circumspect about specifics, but Linda is demoralized and demeaned by her boss, Dave (Jim Poole), patronized by Amy (Rochelle Therrien)--a beautiful young subordinate who professes admiration while aiming to pass her by--haunted by circumstances of her past and parents, rocked by Neil's rock star fantasies embodied by a singer named Stevie (Lucy Carapetyan) and dealing with being a woman of 55, summed up by her espousing:

"I feel invisible."

With Alice damaged and depressed due a high school incident a decade earlier--she now dresses daily in a onesie with a tail--and Bridget largely ignored or disparaged, Linda is also clearly not Mother of the Year material. 

Under the fine direction of Robin Witt at the consistently stellar Steep, the British playwright Skinner--considerably younger than her main character--nicely contrasts Linda's professional aplomb with her maternal aloofness, while also reflecting how the "embrace the real you" conceit of her cherished True Beauty marketing campaign doesn't carry through to her conversations with her own daughters.

On various fronts, Linda isn't a perfect person, but I sensed that she's a pretty good one.

And while Linda--which feels a tad overstuffed across 2-1/2 hours--isn't quite a perfect play, it's definitely an estimable and thought-provoking one.

Per Steep executive director Kate Piatt-Eckert, this play was slated months prior to the rise of the #MeToo movement, but although it deals with many issues beyond sexual assault/harassment, it couldn't feel any more relevant or resonant.

I've often said that one of the most compelling aspects of theater is in the way it helps you see the world through someone else's eyes.

And much as I've valued plays chronicling people of races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations and identities different than mine, Linda abetted my understanding of what women often face.

Most overtly it concerns itself with the personal and professional challenges of females over 50, while smartly observing belittling double standards and patronizing male perspectives.

Bridget, who dares to approach a school drama audition with proud audacity--"Hamlet is a wankfest for boys," she declares--relays how a male teacher told her that it's most important for women "to be likable."

I very much also valued how slyly powerful Linda is in addressing the complicated subject of feminine beauty.

Though still an attractive woman at 55, Linda vents in a couple of scenes about her waning desirability, while noting the dichotomy between her and her husband, who had "married up" but has become the more striking and "fuckable" of the two as they've aged.

And while Alice and Amy are both beautiful women in their twenties, as the latter plays up her appearance, the former has felt so objectified that she now does everything she can to make men not notice her looks.

Pretty interesting stuff, enhanced by Linda--who has made quite a living marketing beauty products--arguing with Dave and Amy about the future direction of Swan Beauty Corp. and how they should promote themselves.

Not as a marketing slogan but as a wry observation as her life is falling apart, Linda at one point ruminates:

"If you look perfect, everyone thinks your life is perfect."

And smartly, Linda isn't only a dissection of feminine aging--as shrewd as it is about it.

It is a multi-faceted piece that offers powerful insights about, and for, women--and men--of all ages, with perceptivity that goes far beyond skin deep.

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