Wednesday, October 31, 2018

'Day' in the Life: Dael Orlandersmith's 'Lady in Denmark' Nicely Explores Happiness, Grief and a Brush With Greatness -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Lady in Denmark
by Dael Orlandersmith
directed by Chay Yew
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru November 18

Over the past few years, I've valued becoming acquainted with the work of the female, African-American playwright, Dael Orlandersmith.

Last year at Evanston's Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre, I saw Yellowman, for which Orlandersmith was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2002. The 2-character play explores how variances in skin shade can affect the experiences of black people.

And earlier this year, within the Goodman's Owen Theatre--where I also saw Lady in Denmark on Monday night--I saw Orlandersmith herself perform Until the Flood, born from her interviews with residents and authorities of Ferguson, Missouri regarding the killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer, and subsequent protests and riots.

I found it to be quite profound and powerful.

Nicely showcasing her versatility, Lady in Denmark is a one-woman play in which Orlandersmith doesn't perform. Rather--in the Goodman's world premiere production directed by Chay Yew--Linda Gehringer stars as Helene, a Chicago woman in her 70s who recalls her youth in her native Denmark among other poignant memories.

Per several articles in the Goodman show program, the writer's jumping off point for Lady in Denmark was a mention in Lady Sings the Blues--the autobiography of legendary singer Billie Holiday, known as Lady Day--of an encounter with a Danish doctor and his 12-year-old daughter at the Copenhagen airport.

This was on Holiday's 1954 European tour--five years before she would pass at 44--and in noting that she was suffering from a cold, the doctor invited her to his home for care and rest...and the superstar accepted.

Orlandersmith tried to ascertain exactly who the 12 year old girl was, and if still alive, locate her, but was unable to. Thus, the character of Helene is fictional, albeit inspired by a real circumstance.

It’s an interesting conceit, and any highlighting of the remarkable Billie Holiday is always welcome in my world. 

Gehringer is excellent, and Lady in Denmark is a rather poignant and quite enjoyable piece. 

But while Helene tells of the airport encounter and hosting Billie in her home, which leads to a deep-seated lifelong love of Holiday’s music that helps “get me through,” there really is relatively little lore of Lady Day woven into the fictionalized memoir. 

Helene regularly has Holiday’s records on the turntable in her comfortable Andersonville home—the set design by Andrew Boyce is superb, especially given that the Owen is the Goodman’s smaller theater—but I would have loved to have heard more than a few song snippets (“Come Rain or Come Shine,” “God Bless This Child”) and learned a bit more about the singer, not that I haven’t elsewhere.

For meeting Holiday is far from the most momentous event just in Helene’s childhood, and in this I’m not even referencing World War II or the Nazis invading Denmark. 

I’ll leave specifics vague, but Helene tells of a horrific incident that happened when she was 14, with implications well-beyond a chance encounter with an American music star.

Helene seemingly did enjoy a long and happy marriage to a Dane named Lars, who we learn has died just a few weeks before she tells the 90-minute tale of her life. 

In fact, Helene is speaking--strictly to the audience, which seems normal and a bit strange at the same time, as it's not set up like she's talking to someone unseen inside her home, or even on speakerphone--after all the guests have left an 80th birthday party she has thrown in Lars' honor, not cancelling it even after his passing. 

Initially Helene talks about her two grandsons who were among the party guests; one who thinks she's hip because she fancies Billie Holiday's music, another who was accompanied by a particularly shallow and loathsome girlfriend who said all the wrong things. 

From there, she reaches back to her childhood recollections, including Denmark during the war, a somewhat older-than-her man named Bo, meeting Billie and eventually marrying Lars and moving to Chicago. 

All of it is warmly presented, but only parts particularly consequential and riveting. 

In 2018, Goodman has presented several one-person shows, including Orlandersmith's Until the Flood, Pamplona, in which Stacy Keach embodied Ernest Hemingway, and the recent We're Only Alive For a Short Amount of Time, a memoir written by and starring David Cale. 

All of these--including Lady in Denmark--have been worthwhile pieces of theater, while illustrating the writing, performing and directing talent necessary to hold an audience with just one person speaking the entire time. 

Orlandersmith, Gehringer and Yew make Helene's life interesting--and, despite the unique interaction with Billie Holiday,  universal--enough to warrant one's attendance and attention.

I just think Lady in Denmark needs to celebrate Holiday a bit more, and spice up or eliminate some of the duller patches.

It's really good but doesn't quite sing to the heavens. 

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