L'imitation of Life
Playwright: Ricky Graham with Running
with Scissors Theater Company (based on
an original script by Bruce McNally)
At: Hell in a Handbag Productions
at Mary's Attic, 5400 N. Clark St.
Tickets: 800-838-3006 or
$15-$25; $35-$100 premium
Runs through: May 10
Life Without Roses
Playwright: June Sawyers
At: Anna Morgan Studio (Room 825),
Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Ave.
Tickets: 312-435-9736; $10
Runs through: April 26
BY SCOTT C. MORGAN
The passage of time can be a cruel arbiter on works of art that become timeless or end up as horribly dated.
Take Fannie Hurst's 1933 novel Imitation of Life, which inspired two adaptations by Universal Pictures: a 1934 film starring Claudette Colbert and a 1959 Douglas Sirk color remake. Though Hurst's novel seriously aimed to explore sexism and racism, Imitation of Life nowadays comes off as laughable and even offensiveparticularly in the film adaptations with their stereotypical "Mammy" depictions of an ever-loyal African-American maid and her daughter who can pass as white.
That's why a spoof like L'imitation of Life is such a roaring hoot. This Chicago premiere at Mary's Attic not only plays to Hell in a Handbag Productions' strengths of presenting oversize drag performances, but to the company's love of unintentional dramatically campy excesses from Hollywood.
Playwright Ricky Graham's comedy takedown of Imitation of Life zeroes in on the 1959 version that starred a post-murder scandal Lana Turner. Consider how the original novel and film were changed to make Turner's leading lady from a packaged pancake mix magnate into an ambitious actress with a parade of fabulous outfits (designed here by Beth Miller). This is just one ridiculous example highlighted in this delicious spoof smartly directed by Cheryl Snodgrass.
Hell in a Handbag stalwart Ed Jones is hilarious as the self-centered Turner, forever forgetting the name of her loyal maid, Annie Johnson (a dutiful Robert Williams). As their respective daughters, Steve Love brings a maniacal edge to Suzie Turner, while Alex Grelle enjoys being dramatically overwrought as Sara Jane Johnson (who turns her back on her Black heritage).
Other good supporting work comes from John Cardone as the slimy love interest Steve Martin, Lynne Jordan as gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and Michael S. Miller in his often ethnically insensitive cameo roles.
Hell in a Handbag's L'imitation of Life is campy catnip to lovers of old Hollywood history. But for lovers of Chicago history, June Sawyers' world premiere one-woman play Life without Roses about the lesbian literary icon Margaret Anderson will be a bit of a letdown.
Anderson's time in Chicago in the early 1900s (ultimately working her way up to edit the influential literary magazine The Little Review) is worth dramatization. But Sawyers' current rendition still needs revision, since Sawyers' script focuses more on Anderson facts instead of her feelings (more emphasis on Anderson's lesbian love life would be welcome).
Also, Cynthia Judge's performance as Anderson would have been livelier if she didn't have to rely on script notes. For now, Life Without Roses plays more like a historical costumed character celebrating Chicago's Fine Arts Building rather than the accomplishments of an artsy literary bohemian like Anderson.