In less than five minutes, it’s clear who Lori is talking to and what is in the trunk. The morning after taking in Greenhouse Theater Center’s world premiere of “Her America,” I’m still wondering if that makes a difference. I think it does.
If that seems an ambivalent reaction to playwright Brett Neveu’s latest work, it’s one in keeping with the source material. Even the press release describing the production is full of questions. Lori, played by Jeff Award-winning actress Kate Buddeke (Steppenwolf Theatre’s “Airline Highway”), confronts “where it all went astray. Was it the day she married Dan? The morning a stranger from her past reappeared? Or the night she put a secret in the trunk, changing her family forever?”
The aforementioned “secret” is the conferee of what amounts to a 75-minute monologue from a conflicted Lori. The lifelong resident of on undefined patch of earth in Middle America, the character earned her high school education, married young and is without a career. She details a lonely childhood full of religious judgment, shyness and mystery. Lori doesn’t know who fathered her, and that seems to be important to what we learn is a needy string of dependent relationships with men.
Despite her predilection, onstage and off, to live as a quiet island, Lori displays a curious lack of agency as she expands upon her spoken autobiography. Nothing is ever her fault, as typified by her repeated angry shouts toward the trunk. Imploring an unseen figure to “Say you’re sorry!” for the sad, injured state of affairs that has Lori creeping through her basement, digging through artifacts and hiding from the hounds upstairs.
It becomes very clear that Lori is a habitual hider, literally as well as metaphorically. There’s every reason to suspect that Lori’s often bipolar reflections on the course of her existence is the most she’s ever said at one time. And while she ultimately shirks responsibility for her own unhappiness, it’s equally apparent that it’s she who’s manipulated four lives. She exhibits no obvious guilt, just a lot of ignorance and self-pity.
Is this interesting? Kind of. Neveu’s script has some insightful observations about the smallness that overtakes the intellectually uncurious. Lori’s world isn’t much bigger than her couch, yard, husband and childhood friend. She describes drinking, bonfires and TV as her circle’s pursuits and it’s never occurred to the character to want or search for more.
Kate Buddeke is a talented actress who digs her teeth into the extended soliloquy of rural rage and regret. She’s well directed by Linda Gillum, and Scenic Designer Grant Sabin knows how to conjure a cellar that veritably screams “poor white trash” at the audience. Moreover, the one dramatic, forceful life choice that Lori actually makes (even an affair is made to sound like natural, casual happenstance), conjures urgent sociopolitical considerations of women’s health, financial independence and the tension between public and private morality.
“Her America” flirts with consequence but at the end of Buddeke’s energetic performance, theatergoers may find the work forgettable. Like the hole at the bottom of Lori’s steamer trunk. Because the only voice we hear, the only person we see, takes away so little from the experience herself. Lori goes nowhere, a metaphor driven home by her protracted basement cowering. And even if the stagnation is sometimes inventive, sluggishness itself rarely makes a lasting impression.
Only the night after the production’s press opening, the Greenhouse Theater’s Downstairs Mainstage housed no more than a dozen ticketholders. The material’s apathy is already affecting attendance. It’s too bad. Buddeke’s talent deserves better.
“Her America” runs through February 12 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 773-404-7336 or visit the Greenhouse Theater website.