I was supposed to see Southern Gothic a week ago, but life got in the way and I didn’t make it then. Thankfully, the team at Windy City Playhouse (3014 W. Irving Park Rd.) allowed me to reschedule, because to miss this new storefront production (on through April 22) would be to miss one of the gems of regional theater currently on display in Chicago.
Southern Gothic, directed by David H. Bell from a script by Leslie Liautaud, transports its audience to June 1961, but the change in scenery doesn’t end there. The time travel is manifested even further by presenting the show on a stage that’s actually a built-out prairie-style home. A front porch opens into a living room, kitchen and dining room that the audience—limited to just 35 people or so at any given performance—is invited to enter and explore.
There is no separation of church and state here, no barrier between audience and performers; instead, the rooms are lined with benches that you’re welcome to sit on as the action unfolds around you. But I don’t recommend doing so. The full impact of Southern Gothic is best experienced from a wandering point of view.
The play you’ll see (about 90 minutes with no intermission) unfolds across these rooms (plus a powder room you can peek into and a patio on the side of the house) that comprise the house of Beau and Ellie Coutier (Michael McKeough and Sarah Grant), who’ve invited friends over to celebrate Ellie’s sister-in-law’s 40th birthday. And you’re in the thick of it, bouncing from room to room as conversations happen as they do at parties: simultaneously and spontaneously, unfinished and interrupted. Tensions rise and fall, secrets are spilled and no one at this get-together will be left unscathed by the time they call it a night.
It’s a small gathering, just a cast of eight (including the Coutiers). The birthday girl is Suzanne Wellington (Briana Borger), and she’s a force to be reckoned with from the moment she and her husband Jackson (Paul Fagen) arrive. They’re anxiously awaiting the arrival of Charles (Brian McCaskill) and Lauren Lyon (Christine Mayland Perkins), an aspiring politician and his long-suffering wife, who’s also been friends with Suzanne since childhood. This crowd goes way back, we learn. Playboy Tucker Alsworth (Peter Ash) and Lauren have a history, and the mere presence of his date for the evening, society columnist Cassie Smith (Ariel Richardson), brings another layer of drama to the proceedings. Or rather, the presence of extra melanin in her skin does.
As the party begins, we learn the caterers won’t be arriving (car accident, chicken cordon bleu the biggest casualty), so Beau and Ellie scramble to plate up snacks and small bites for their guests. Popcorn, chips, cheese whiz and Twinkies fill up the dining room table, and we’re invited to snack along with the cast. At certain cues, unobtrusive stagehands even roam the rooms with trays of cocktails for us to sip on as well (a birthday toast, for example, triggers champagne for all).
It’s an ingenious move for this immersive experience, as if accidentally bumping into the players (which I did!) isn’t proof enough you’re thisclose to the action. There I was, absent-mindedly noshing on popcorn as I watched a particularly tense interaction play out in front of me like a nosy neighbor listening in from the other side of the fence.
The script was originally written as a traditional production—audience here, actors up there—but kudos to the team at Windy City Playhouse for putting in the time and work to adapt it for such a creative execution here. It’s no Sleep No More, that immersive production in New York that spans several floors of a restored warehouse and demands anonymity from its audience as you move from scene to extreme scene.
But it’s not supposed to be, either. Southern Gothic succeeds in its intimacy, the immediate nature of seeing one alcohol-fueled confrontation happen here while you eye a clandestine flirtation taking place over there. You won’t catch everything that happens, and it’s understandable if that concerns you; why go to a show where you know right away you’ll miss some of it? Rest assured, the team has thought through all of this. Between the compact, open setting and the pacing of a show that leans into its ebbs and flows, you’ll still enjoy a solid narrative arc.
No one member of this ensemble, many of them making their Windy City Playhouse debut, stands out as a particularly strong performance, but perhaps that’s by design as well. It’s more about how they all interact with each other than any one character stealing the show. And though at times some of the drama feels a bit forced, chalk that up to the charged emotions and a Southern penchant for going a bit over-the-top. At least they all do that southern drawl well.
It’s always a risk to try something unique, and in less adept hands, the chances Southern Gothic takes with our expectations of live productions and small ensemble pieces might not have paid off. But this crackling combination of theater and cocktail party serves up a most enjoyable night on the town.
Southern Gothic has been extended thru July 29. Performances are Wednesdays through Sundays with weekend matinees. Learn more and get tickets here.