Right out of the gate, I will say that the term ‘gothic’ certainly fits the story and the actions of the characters in Southern Gothic. Windy City Playhouse’s remount of Leslie Liautaud’s play peels back the layers of genteel Ashford, Georgia, in 1961. Jack Kennedy is in the White House and every woman wants to embody the taste and poise of Jackie Kennedy. It’s the New Frontier and optimism can surely overcome all of the pain and secrets of a group of lifelong friends in their little corner of Georgia. That is until the facade begins to crumble.
Ellie and Beau Coutier (Sarah Grant and Max Stewart) are throwing a 40th birthday party for Ellie’s sister-in-law Suzanne (a fabulous Anne Sheridan Smith). The caterers had an accident involving a beehive hairdo and the chicken Cordon Bleu will be very late. It is mid-century America, so the Coutiers stock the bar, pull out canned cheese, celery, chips, and popcorn. What could go wrong?
Suzanne arrives with her husband Jackson (Joe Metcalfe) arguing about picking up the dry cleaning. Sheridan Smith plays the genteel Southern Belle with an acid tongue and guileless attitude as she digs the knife in. Metcalfe is really good as the harried husband striving to keep up with Suzanne’s social climbing and drive for unattainable perfection. Lauren and Charles Lyon (Carley Cornelius and Matt Bowdren) are all facade and schmooze. Charles is a senatorial candidate and Lauren comes from a wealthy family and has been molded to be a politician’s wife. Lyon puts some menace into his ambitious politician and Cornelius is remarkable as a tightly wound wife who has endured a loveless marriage. Cornelius projects pure venom when Tucker enters with Cassie—a Black woman just as chic, well-mannered, and slim as she.
The last arrival is serial playboy Tucker Alsworth (Miles Borchard) with his latest fling, Cassie Smith (Reese Parish). The jaws drop because Cassie is “colored”—clutch your pearls. Liautaud’s dialogue is really sharp showing everyone’s discomfort. When Cassie mentions that she and Tucker just spent a week on Harry Belafonte’s yacht—everyone can relate to a colored singer. “Day O!” Lauren is particularly resentful of Cassie and it is revealed that she was in love with Tucker but her father put the kibosh on it. He had no money or prospects in her father’s eyes and the ambitious Charles was a better choice.
Southern Gothic is done in immersive style where the audience is on the periphery of the rooms where the action is taking place—a metaphoric fly on the wall. It is not the same as a promenade style where the audience follows the action. Different dialogue and conflict take place in every room. While it was fun to be a fly on the wall, it was also annoying because I did not want to miss one juicy detail. The audience had to stick to the periphery and not block any doorways. I was glued to the clandestine affair going on in the kitchen and the dirt about the money missing from the family business was outside on the patio. I wanted to sprint over there but Suzanne was in the living room sobbing about her dead dog after Cassie tells them that her brother was killed in front of a Whites Only bar. Nothing like a drunk narcissist to ease the tension.
The play is well directed by David H. Bell, and the immersive experience is co-created by Carl Menninger and Amy Rubenstein. The action is well paced and moves smoothly through the gorgeous mid-century set design by Scott Davis. 1961 was a time when a coffee table was called a cocktail table and every accessory had a specific use. Properties and details designer Eleanor Kahn hit this out of the park. Every detail from the candy dishes to the aqua cabinets in the kitchen is perfect. There is even a potato chip tin! The costumes are beautiful and 1961 correct by Sydney Moore. The gilded suit, sheath dresses, and the burgeoning world of polyester are really cool.
The cast is skilled and doesn’t miss a step with pacing or the authentic dialect coached by Linda Gates. In all, it is a very good production, but as I mentioned previously, I didn’t want to miss one detail. The program states that it doesn’t matter if every word isn’t caught, but it does matter. The intertwined lives, betrayals, and Southern mores of the American Camelot era are portrayed so well in this production of Southern Gothic, that I may have to go again.
Southern Gothic has an open run scheduled through November 30 at Petterino’s Restaurant, 150 N. Dearborn. It is produced in conjunction with the Goodman Theatre. Shows are Wednesday through Sunday and ticket prices range from $65-$95. Please check the Windy City Playhouse website for specifics. Drinks are passed (Tom Collins, champagne, whiskey sours) around to the audience throughout the play and they are allowed to eat snacks out on the tables. You will be asked to bring proof of vaccination or a negative PCR Covid test taken within 72 hours.
For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.
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