Stages

Review: Career and Life Come Crashing Down on Linda at Steep Theatre

Linda makes a presentation. Photo by Claire Demos.

Linda, the Steep Theatre production of Penelope Skinner’s 2015 play, is entertaining and poignant, cataloging the life and career of the successful brand strategist for a beauty company. Robin Witt’s smart direction benefits by a very strong cast, as we have come to expect from Steep productions. Joe Schermoly’s set design shows us a gorgeous kitchen (designed by Linda), which he morphs effectively into an office and boardroom.

The audience at Sunday’s matinee opening performance was heavily populated by women of a certain age—Linda’s age—and theater statistics tell us that’s who buys most of the theater tickets. And from the opening corporate presentation by Linda (Kendra Thulin), the audience showed its appreciation for Linda’s story. Her corporate presentation introduces a new ad campaign focusing on products and programs for women over 50, who are often invisible and ignored, as she describes. The brand statement on her final slide is: Visibility.

But the world and Swan Beauty Corporation are focused on youth and Linda’s campaign is rejected for the one proposed by a new brand strategist, 25-year-old Amy (Rochelle Therrien). Her brand statement: Hi Beautiful. Linda is proud of her career (she reminds us frequently that she is an award-winning executive), her work-life balance, and her achievements with home and family.

But that moment is the beginning of a slide that includes every possible trauma. Her younger colleague becomes her boss. Her husband Neil (Peter Moore) cheats with a younger woman in his new rock band. (He’s having an age-related crisis too.) Her 25-year-old daughter, Alice (Destini Huston), was traumatized in high school by a social media scandal. Her solution is to stay in her bedroom and wear a skunk onesie. She wants to be invisible. Her sister, teenager Bridget (Caroline Phillips) wants to be an actor and is choosing a Shakespeare monologue for an audition. Cheerful Bridget is helpful around the house and seems almost normal.

We learn other parts of Linda’s past too, including a family tragedy and a #MeToo event. As a young woman, she was the sexual prey of Dave (Jim Poole), now the company CEO. But she didn’t leave her job, because she was afraid she wouldn’t find another one. Today she indulges in a brief liaison with a younger coworker, Luke (Omer Abbas Salem).

Thulin as Linda and Phillips as Bridget. Photo by Claire Demos.

Neil’s transgression sets Linda off. “I do everything in this house and the reason I do everything is because I thought at the very least you were loyal. And reliable. And as it turns out you’re not. So now I see you for what you are: you’re an ornament.”

“Because I do everything in this house.” That’s the complaint of women of that generation, who were told they could have it all but didn’t get any husbandly support. But Linda’s ultimate lament is, “I used to be the protagonist of my life and now suddenly I’m starting to feel irrelevant.”

Thulin’s role dominates Skinner’s play and she is outstanding as Linda. Moore also gives a fine performance as Neil, especially his impact as he tries to save his marriage. Phillips, who plays Bridget, is an experienced 18-year-old actor who clearly has a bright future. She’s convincing as she laments about the trivial nature of many female roles in classic theater; her solution is to choose a male role because they get all the lines.

The play runs about 2.5 hours (including an intermission) and many of Linda’s monologues are long. As I said, her story includes every possible trauma and the last act verges on melodrama. I think the story line would have more impact if some of the incidents were stripped out. For instance, Salem is a talented actor and we have seen him stand out in other productions (such as Steep’s Earthquakes in London). But his whole I’m-going-to-Bali-on-my-spiritual-journey shtick, as well as his moment with Linda, would not be missed.

English playwright Skinner is also author of The Ruins of Civilization, The Village Bike (for which she won a 2011 promising playwright award), The Sound of Heavy Rain and Midnight at the Hotel Beauregard. She also writes for television.

Linda at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn, has been extended through September 15. Tickets are $38 for reserved seats and $27 general admission for performances Thursday-Sunday. Steep’s venue is a few steps east of the Berwyn Red Line Station. Cast note: Steep ensemble member Cindy Marker takes over the role of Linda as of August 16. Kendra Thulin is stepping aside to undergo a medical procedure.

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