A benefit of being a theater writer in Chicago is becoming aware of all the fantastic work happening outside the city limits. Writers Theatre in Glencoe proved that the ‘burbs got game with their production of “Once” last spring, and they’ve done it again with “Eurydice,” helmed by artistic director Braden Abraham.
The play gets bonus suburban cred as the playwright, Sarah Ruhl, was born and raised just down the road from the theater in the town of Wilmette. Ruhl also studied as a youth at the Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston, where she learned that “theater was not about sets or spectacle, but that language was everything, and that narration could be used as a transformative force… I feel like I’m putting literature on stage, not just dialogue.” (In an interview with Hugh Iglarsh, Newcity Stage, 2015)
Entering the Writers Theatre, one trades the sight of nearby Lake Michigan for a surreal version of a seaside boardwalk—a sloping wooden deck that looks like it was built on top of a wave while surrounded by blue water. This is the underworld.
Not a bad place, really. When un-life gets too much for you, you can dip yourself in the magic water of a nearby fire hydrant and, beneath a single solemn streetlamp, erase the memories of your troubles, your past, yourself.
People don’t have it so easy in the world of the living. Orpheus (Kenneth La’Ron Hamilton) is handsome, muscular and the best musician in the world, but has trouble keeping his mind on anything besides music. This is to the chagrin of his fiancée, Eurydice (Sarah Price), a vibrant young woman with a penchant for books.
“But you don’t have any rhythm!”
“I don’t need rhythm. I have books!”
“Do books have rhythm?”
Meanwhile, Eurydice’s Father (John Gregorio) is dead; but that doesn’t stop him from being productive! In a rust-colored suit, he runs errands and socializes with his fellow dead. The Big, Little and Loud Stones (John Lister, Elizabeth Ledo and Susaan Jamshidi), the resident Greek chorus appearing as retired folk from Florida, warn that in the underworld there is “no music, no reading, no crying, no fathers… Only stones!” Despite these warnings, he retains his memories and figures out a way to send letters to his living daughter.
But the Lord of the Underworld (Larry Yando)—a disconcerting man-child wearing powder-blue Western wear and riding a child’s red tricycle—doesn’t take kindly to the dead communicating with the living. A tragic plot unfolds that finds Eurydice reunited with her Father in the underworld and her lover in hot pursuit.
If Orpheus finds her, he can bring her back. There are only two problems: First, there is a stipulation that they must follow or else fail; Second, this is a Greek tragedy, so they are bound to fail. But it’s how they fail, and fail again and again, always missing salvation by the narrowest of margins that keeps the story’s edge consistently sharp.
It’s a tragedy, so don’t expect a happy ending. How bitter does it get? You’ll have to find out for yourself; but I can tell you that, afterwards, your own memories of loved ones are even sweeter by comparison. There’s nothing like a tragedy to make you realize how good you got it.
We do have it good if Writers Theatre continues to produce works of such high caliber. Ruhl’s “Eurydice” combines ancient storytelling and classic characters with Nietzschean undertones of self-actualization to create a truly moving experience.
So, take that highway to Hell (I-94 toward Milwaukee) to see some of the best theater in or out of the city, and don’t look back.
“Eurydice” runs through October 22 at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe. Tickets are $35-$90 and are available by calling (847)242-6000 or visiting writerstheatre.org.