Stages

William Inge’s Natural Affection at Eclipse: A Slice of Bygone America That Wasn’t Idyllic

Bell, Coates and Daigle. Photo by Scott Dray.

A middle-aged woman, her boyfriend and her teenaged son—all in one small apartment. That sounds like a formula for trouble and so it proves to be in William Inge’s Natural Affection. The 1963 Inge play, set in Chicago during Christmas 1962, is being staged by Eclipse Theatre Company with direction by Rachel Lambert.

Natural Affection shows that the America some would like to return to was neither great nor idyllic. Inge wrote a thought-provoking play, based on his reading of reports of contemporary violence, but it doesn’t attain the quality of his other work, like Picnic and Bus Stop. It’s worth seeing for its treatment of people suffering urban problems that resonate today.

Sue Barker (Diana Coates) is a successful executive—a buyer for a major Chicago department store. She earns a good living, more than her boyfriend Bernie Slovenk (Luke Daigle), a car salesman and former bartender. Sue wants to get married but Bernie won’t commit until he earns a better living. After all, a man was supposed to support a woman, remember?

Their life is a little rocky anyway but then Sue’s son, Donnie (Terry Bell) arrives to visit from the “prison farm” (reform school) where he’s been serving time. Donnie asks his mother if he can stay with her. The judge will release him from his last year at the farm, but only if he can live with his mother. Those are the basic parameters of the story of Natural Affection—with the embellishment of the couple next door. Vince (Joe McCauley) is a self-hating drunk and his wife Claire (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason) is troubled and has an eye for other men.

There are hints of doom throughout the play, beginning with Sue’s first words to Bernie as she stands at the window. “Standin’ here, lookin’ out at the world. God, the world looks awful ugly at times.”

McCauley and Daigle. Photo by Scott Dray.

Sue, played with charm and sympathy by Coates, lives with the guilt she feels because she put Donnie in an orphanage when he was a baby after his father deserted them. Bernie worries about losing his job. Donnie is jittery and prone to violent outbursts. And Vince, who seemed like a happy drunk, gives the encapsulating speech of the play near the end of act two. “Life is miserable. Everything’s all mixed up and crazy. There’s nothin’ I like any more. Everything’s ugly….I’m scared, Bernie. I’ve lived all this time and it hasn’t meant anything. Can’t seem to hold on to anything. Life’s slipping away and I never learned what it’s all about.”

Natural Affection is performed on a single set that serves as Sue’s living room, kitchen and bedroom. A slice of Claire and Vince’s apartment is visible too. Joanna Iwanicka makes this scenic design work, with the help of lighting by Kevin Hagan. Christopher Kriz provides sound design and original mid-century bluesy music. Between acts, we hear Miles Davis’ 1959 album, Kind of Blue.

Natural Affection is an imperfect play. The characters are not fully fleshed out and there are bumpy transitions. It’s in some ways a tough play to watch. But it is interesting to see another side of William Inge. Here, he’s not the playwright of the Midwestern small town but a writer who explores big city troubles.

William Inge was a son of the Midwest. Born in Independence, Kansas, he showed an early love for theater but held many different types of jobs before becoming a theater and arts critic for a St. Louis newspaper. That’s how he came to meet Tennessee Williams. That meeting and their resulting friendship is portrayed in the excellent Raven Theatre production, The Gentleman Caller, written by Philip Dawkins.

Inge’s better known and more successful plays are Picnic, Bus Stop, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, and Come Back, Little Sheba. Natural Affection opened in New York in early 1963 but only ran 36 performances—most likely because of the New York newspaper strike, which meant limited publicity for a new play. Inge also wrote screenplays and novels. The William Inge Center for the Arts at Independence Community College sponsors the annual William Inge Theatre Festival to honor playwrights.

Eclipse produces one playwright per season. The other Inge plays this season will be Bus Stop and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.

Natural Affection by Eclipse Theatre Company runs two hours with one intermission. It’s in the third floor studio at the Athenaeum, 2936 N. Southport, through May 20. Tickets are $35 with discounts available. Performances are Thursday-Sunday.

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