Her name is Hecuba. Once in power, she is now enslaved. Once a wife, she is now a widow. And once a mother, she is now the mourner of two slaughtered children. But in a highly anticipated American-premiere production of Irish playwright Frank McGuinness’ adaptation of Euripides’ timeless tale at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, the former Trojan Queen seems to have lost more than just her tiara. This “Hecuba” is lacking the torment. Any actress taking on the demanding role of Hecuba—here stage and screen star Marsha Mason—must traverse a demanding emotional arc requiring the degree of intense onstage suffering that tests the mettle of even the most established tragedienne. But the biggest challenge is that she must also clearly convey that shocking moment when she embraces the brutal patriarchy she has thus far condemned and, deciding that V can be for vengeance as well as victim-hood, justifies the play’s jarringly bathetic turn towards its gruesome denouement. It’s clear what this moment is from McGuinness’ direct, compact and subtly lyrical adaptation, but Mason’s sustained bouts of anger and sadness never quite reach that harrowing breaking point. Lacking a grab-you-by-the-throat intensity, I was sadly underwhelmed. The rest of this bleakly atmospheric production, however, from designer Michael Philippi’s set of depressing grey concrete slab and barbed wire, to the multi-ethnic three-woman chorus (Black, Caucasian, Eastern European), is excellent and reminds audiences that this 2,500-year-old Greek tragedy has been sadly playing itself out in recent years in Rwanda, Bosnia and other locations across the world. And that’s the problem with this “Hecuba”: it makes you think but fails to make you feel. (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre at Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Avenue, (312)595-5600. Tue 7:30pm/Wed 1pm & 7:30/Thu 7:30pm/Fri 8pm/Sat 3pm & 8:30pm/Sun 3pm. $42-$56. Through June 18.