Life, Death and Memory in A Life Extra Ordinary at The Gift

Cyd Blakewell in "A Life Extra Ordinary" at The Gift Theatre. Photo: Claire Demos
Cyd Blakewell. Photo by Claire Demos

Melissa Ross’ new play, A Life Extra Ordinary, now receiving its world premiere at The Gift Theatre, presents audiences with a collection of moments from one woman’s life, shared by protagonist, narrator and once-expectant mother, Annabel Anderson McCafferty. “Once-expectant,” because Annabel is, despite her corporeal appearance, deceased. The reason behind her death and disappearance one Christmas Eve provides much of the play’s mystery; however, Ross’ play is more than a whodunit: A Life Extra Ordinary strings together a series of memories–some major, some minor–ultimately suggesting that we can never be defined by one decision and its bifurcating repercussions.

Ross’ play definitely provides its ensemble of actors with plenty to chew on, and each actor does so gamely, inhabiting three-dimensional characters and adding to the world of the play. Particularly rich are the portrayals of Annabel (Cyd Blakewell), her mother, Sally (Lynda Newton), and the mysterious and possibly important Polly (Darci Nalepa). Blakewell’s performance is powerful in its earnestness, especially during a monologue late in Act II, which discusses the discovery of her body, as well as her unborn child’s. She brims with intelligence and a sad warmth that draws you in and keeps you hanging on her every word. Newton and Nalepa, too, radiate a veracity that imbues their scenes with a captivating small-town sincerity. The cast is rounded out by similarly impressive work by John Kelly Connolly, Paul D’Addario, Jay Worthington and Rudy Galvan, all just as grounded in the play’s stakes.

Staged in the alley with minimal furniture to suggest location, A Life Extra Ordinary asks audiences to fill in environmental blanks just as often as they are tasked with filling in gaps of story. In one instance, audiences become a part of the play, transforming The Gift’s small storefront into a crowded vigil full of Annabel’s friends and loved ones. Sarah JHP Watkins’ scenic design straddles the metaphysical and real with stylish minimalism that adds texture to Annabel’s life without confining the cast.

The specificity of Ross’ language in Life paints a detailed picture of Annabel, her parents, and others around her. At the same time, Annabel’s life is painted with restraint; as narrator, she skips years of her life, focusing on moments of import to her and those closest to her story. While the picture we see is richly drawn by playwright, director, and ensemble, the play ends with many questions lingering deliciously as we venture back into the evening. We are haunted by our memories of Annabel’s memories, pedestrian and extraordinary, which have stirred the way we remember our crossroads..

A Life Extra Ordinary continues at the Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave., through November 20. Performances are Thursday-Sunday. Tickets are $35 and can be bought online or by calling 773-283-7071.

Brent Eickhoff
Brent Eickhoff

Brent Eickhoff is a Chicago-based director, writer, and educator. Brent has worked with A Red Orchid Theatre, Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co., The Arc Theatre, The Public House Theatre, Something Marvelous, Whiskey Radio Hour, and The Burrowers. He is the Educational Coordinator for Silk Road Rising, and is a founder and co-artistic director of Blue Goose Theatre Ensemble. While Brent has worked with a variety of Chicago theatre artists, he doesn't let that get in the way of writing unbiased reviews of any production he covers.