Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Hometown Folk Blues: Occasionally Tuneful 'Sundown, Yellow Moon' All Too Often Meanders in the Dusk -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Sundown, Yellow Moon
a play with music
by Rachel Bonds
Music & lyrics by The Bengsons
Directed by Cody Estle
Thru November 17

As shared from the stage before Sundown, Yellow Moon began on Monday night, the show represents the start of Raven Theatre’s 37th season.

That’s quite an accomplishment, and even though I don’t go back that far with Raven, I’ve seen works by them since they moved into their current home in late 2002, a former grocery store at 6157 N. Clark St. in Chicago.

With two stages, a sizable lobby and on-site parking, it’s one of my favorite theaters in Chicago, and Raven has self-produced numerous fine shows over the years.

The troupe was long run by husband and wife Michael Menendian and JoAann Montemurro, but over the past two seasons the new Artistic Director Cody Estle has overseen several stellar productions, including The Gentleman Caller, How I Learned to Drive (both of which he directed) and The Undeniable Sound of Right Now.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
So, intrigued by the promotional material denoting it as a play with music, I attended the opening of
Sundown, Yellow Moon with high expectations.

A New York Times review of its 2017 NYC run was rather positive, and I really liked another of Rachel Bonds’ plays, Curve of Departure, when I saw it last fall at Northlight Theatre.

Estle is directing Sundown, Yellow Moon and upon arrival at the Raven’s main stage, the set design by Jeffrey D. Kmiec was rather impressive.

Unfortunately, despite a pair of likable lead actresses—Liz Chidester and Diana Coates—as fraternal twin sisters, Ray and Joey, the 95-minute one-act drama never much stirred me.

The plot seemed to have potential to go in interesting directions, as Ray and Joey have returned to their small Tennessee hometown, where their recently divorced father Tom (Will Casey, who also does a nice job) has been suspended from his teaching job at the local college.

Had the play stayed largely focused on the reasons and repercussions of what landed Tom in hot water, complemented by a look at the hopes and hiccups in the lives of Ray and Joey, it probably could have been sufficiently entertaining.

But these strains become too diffuse, in part due to two male characters, Carver (Jordan Dell Harris), a young colleague of Tom’s forever shadowed by having been abused by a local priest, and Ted (Josh Odor), a lapsed poet who kind of shows up out of nowhere to have some conversations with Joey.

Both actors do their jobs well, and there is nothing terribly wrong with Bonds’ writing around these characters, but the various threads never seem to tie together, nor does much chemistry between Joey and Ted seem to exist.

Essentially we have several individuals who have—as do we all—wants, needs, desires, hopes,
dreams, setbacks, struggles, etc., but without us really getting to abundantly know or care about any of them.

As for the music, Ray, Tom, Carver and a couple family friends (Rob Frankel, Jeanne T. Arrigo) who serve no other dramatic purpose occasionally play some acoustic songs written by indie folk duo, The Bengsons, but this isn’t a musical—nor is it promoted as such—and while a couple of tunes are poignantly pleasant, they don’t really add much to the proceedings.

Anyway, there’s no need for me to belabor this.

I admire the Raven Theatre, applaud all they’ve achieved and appreciate what Cody Estle has brought to the table.

Much as their work has entertained and enriched me over the past two decades, I expect it to do so for years to come.

But this Sundown was a letdown.

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