Playwright: Maria Irene Fornes. At: Halcyon Theatre at Evangelical Lutheran Church, 3253 W. Wilson Ave. Tickets: Halcyon Theatre.org; $20 ( some first-come, first-served free tix are available ). Runs through: Oct. 8
Fefu and Her Friends hasn't been produced in Chicago in many years. It's an important 1977 play by Cuban-born Maria Irene Fornes, the award-winning avant-garde playwright, director, feminist and former lover of Susan Sontag. Fornes, now 86 and ailing, has inspired many contemporary Latina theater artists such as Coya Paz, Tanya Saracho, Karen Zacarias and Caridad Svich through plays such as Mud, The Danube and Promenade.
Stephanie, called Fefu ( Eleanor Katz ), hosts seven female friends at her New England home to plan a charity gala. It's 1935, but these stylishly coifed and dressed women ( costumes, Izumi Inaba ) appear untouched by the Great Depression.
The dialogue sounds natural enough, but Fefu and Her Friends is slightly mystical or magically real as the women reveal inner longings and, especially, fears related to men, power and sexuality. Wheelchair-bound Julia ( Mary Ann de la Cruz ) may suffer from hysterical paralysis, while Paula ( Maren Rosenberg ) and tomboyish Cecilia ( Tamika Lechee Morales ) have a romantic history together. Christina ( Sarah Rachel Schol ) admits her timidity and conformity compared to "adventurous" Fefu. The women's party is completed by ebullient and theatrical Emma ( Laura Stephenson ), diplomatic Sue ( Allyce Torres ) and Fefu's sportily-dressed confidante Cindy ( Ashley Agbay ).
These women question, seek and wonder about themselves but never quite trust their own instincts, repeatedly measuring women against men. I think Fornes chose the 1935 setting because the modern Feminist Movement didn't exist yet and there were few independent women. Undercurrents of danger, even premonitions of death, haunt the play as Fefu fires a pistol and several women vividly describe violent dreams. Or did they really happen?
It's interesting and complex material, made more so by a three-part structure. Parts I and III gather all the women in Fefu's living room while Part II offers four simultaneous scenes in four rooms of the house. The audience divides up and promenades between scenes, which are repeated until everyone has seen them all. Director Tony Adams ( a man ) and his designers ( Nicholas Schwartz, scenic; Cat Davis, lighting; Jessica Mondres, properties ) do a nifty job with the physical staging on the third floor ( no elevator ) of a church hall, but the play's emotional and psychological depths are not fully realized. Yes, Fefu and Her Friends has some splendid moments, such as de la Cruz's extremely intimate solo scene in a tiny bedroom, but too much seems charmingly facile, typical of Fornes' style but just the surface of the play.
I missed some details about characters and situations because a lot of the playparticularly Part IIwas spoken barely above a whisper. The audience may be only three feet away but actors still need to project and point their lines. Some audio adjustment is needed.