THE STANDARD FOR STORYTELLING
It’s a coup just to get the theatrical rights to this juicy work, the late, great Paddy Chayevsky’s Oscar-nominated 1956 screenplay. But it’s sensational to pull it off to perfection. Cinematic as its source, John Mossman’s adaptation and staging of The Goddess is a gem of make-believe, an engrossing cautionary tale about hunger, hope and humiliation in Hollywood.
Using a dynamic video backdrop on an old-style proscenium screen, performed on a runway in a hall hung with celluloid strips, reels and film-case covers, it’s inventive before it starts (scenic design by Corinne Bass; props/set dressing by Elizabeth Pineda). Chronicling the Marilyn Monroe-like rise and fall of a screen siren named Rita Shawn from 1932 to 1957, this sweeping, sprawling saga renews the reality of a hundred Tinsel Town clichés. They persist because they exist.
In 140 minutes we watch Emily Ann Faulkner (Ava Morse as her youngest self), small-town hopeful from Beacon City, Maryland, suffer a miserable childhood: She’s hurtfully palmed off by her hysterical anti-mother (Maria Stephens) on her aunt and uncle. In short time this star-crossed starlet, now Rita Shawn, has become a perpetually insecure young lady, ravenous for recognition, deeply unsure of her worth, and undervaluing herself with every compromise she makes for a career she can’t endure. This crude, loud and garrulous “ear bender” bursts with manic energy, which reads as emotional “availability” on the screen, but morphs into loneliness and dependency off-camera.
Chayevsky, creator of Marty and Network, knew La La Land’s liabilities (as in lies) like a disillusioned survivor. He lavishes these revelations on behind-the-scenes exposures (the dramatic rather than film kind). We watch a slow-motion train wreck that begins with Rita’s sudden stardom. This ball of misdirected energy evolves from a good-time girl in amateur theatricals to a sodden marriage with the cynical and suicidal son of a movie star (sultry Daniel McEvilly) and a second marriage with a washed-up pugilist/sports spokesman (sad sack Josh Odor) that succumbs to late-afternoon lassitude and gorgeous boredom. All along (and alone), Rita uses her parts to get parts, demanding respect from everyone but herself.
Inevitably, Rita–damaged goods on a tabloid tear–has an almost obligatory “nervous breakdown.” She appears nude in Playboy, reaches for the bottle and pops pills, then dabbles in religion as her dementedly devout mother visits from the East and forces her to come clean to Jesus. The play comes full circle as Rita, returning to Maryland, rejects her daughter just as her mother abandoned her without a second thought. At least her first husband has returned: There’s a chance that Rita’s tailspin might just be an emergency landing. But maybe not: The play’s last words: “She never had a chance.”
Everything feels right in The Artistic Home’s production—especially the casting and the costumes (period-perfect garb by Lynn Sandberg). The great gift throughout is the “goddess” herself: Lee Stark’s Rita is a force of nature gone very wrong. Exploding with the rapid-fire, machine-gun dialogue that’s a Chayevsky signature, she’s a complex, quicksilver bundle of contradictions, combing Marilyn’s morose self-doubt with the brittle glamour of another Rita and also Ava. (If Stark doesn’t get a Jeff Award, well, as Rita screams at her mother, “There ain’t no God!”) It’s lacerating, agonizing bravura acting, strongly supported by a 17-member cast who, like Rita, can never be loved enough.
The Artistic Home, 1376 W. Grand
scheduled to end on November 17, 2013
for tickets, call 866-811-4111
or visit http://www.theartistichome.org
for info on this and other Chicago Theater,