A dinner party is a great device for theatrical conflict. There’s nothing like too much wine and miscommunication to draw the poisons out of the mud. It worked for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
And it works again in “Welcome to Matteson!” a most uncomfortable comedy by Inda Craig-Galván that opens Congo Square Theatre’s twenty-fifth anniversary season. Brilliantly performed by a talented four-member cast, the play depicts a culture clash in the African-American community between those who are trying to rise and those who have already.
There are two couples: the first, played by Ronald L. Conner and Sydney Charles, are longtime residents of south suburban Matteson. They have a nice house, pictures of the Barack Obama presidential campaign on the refrigerator, a colorful jumping broom over the fireplace and an expensively stocked liquor cart.
They often host neighborhood events, and have invited to dinner two new neighbors, played by Alexis J. Roston and Anthony L. Irons, who have been relocated from the now-vanished Cabrini-Green housing project.
It becomes immediately apparent that the bourgeois Patty (who prefers to be called Patricia) is an uptight poseur who doesn’t want this dinner and thinks poorly of her guests before they even come through the door. She bought them cheap wine, thinking they’d prefer it while keeping the good stuff for herself. Her husband, though more amiable, also plans not to share his best liquor.
There’s a stark contrast between the couples in clothing, manner and the nature of their marriages. Regina is a loud talker in a tight dress, blond wig and big rhinestone earrings, whereas Patty wears an expensive pantsuit and black, flowing curls. She likes to correct other people’s vocabulary.
It’s also clear that Regina has a more loving and functional marriage, while Patty has a drinking problem and many anxieties about her status. She’s afraid that the arrival of the Cabrini-Green residents will bring down the value of her property, and has a troubling sympathy for whatever group put a racist flyer in her new neighbors’ mailbox.
This sounds heavy and it gets that way toward the end of the ninety minutes without intermission. But under the brisk direction of Congo Square artistic director Ericka Ratcliff, there is plenty of humor through most of the show, with the audience groaning in sympathy when Patty insists that Regina take off her funky boots (obviously chosen to match her outfit), or laughing when Patty’s cooking is not as promised.
Roston, who recently finished a triumphant turn as Marie Knight in “Marie and Rosetta” at the Northlight Theatre, is a delight as Regina. Her mobile face shows the character’s deep emotional intelligence and skepticism—Regina knows what’s going on and how to find happiness wherever she is. She’ll do just fine with her new home and her Governors State University credentials, no matter what the neighbors think. Roston and Charles have terrific frenemy chemistry, especially in a light moment when they imitate Tina Turner and a back-up singer, using kitchen utensils as microphones. Charles evokes sympathy for the prickly Patty, who could be better than she is, if she weren’t so frightened.
The terrific set for the show by Joe Schermoly cleverly creates distinct separate spaces (a kitchen and dining-living room). The lighting focuses the audience’s attention on whatever part of the house is the center of the action. There’s also a bit of magic—a pedestal like the base of a snow globe, which characters mount to show triumphant parts of their lives.
The main weakness of the play is the end, which goes into some magical realism connected to Chicago weather. It works, but it takes adjustment to get into this other reality after the ultra-realistic style of most of the script.
The work of Craig-Galván, a South Side native, often explores conflicts and politics within the African American community. Her play “a hit dog will holler” just finished a run at the Artemisia Theatre.
Congo Square’s production of “Welcome to Matteson!” is part of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere program, in which a new play is premiered by multiple companies over eighteen months to allow the playwright to collaborate and make changes. It’s getting its “World Premiere” at the New Jersey Repertory Company this month.
“Welcome to Matteson!” runs through October 1, Congo Square Theatre, at Northwestern University’s Abbott Hall, 710 North DuSable Lake Shore. Tickets available at congosquaretheatre.org.