On October 29, 2018, Lady in Denmark, a world premiere by Pulitzer Prize finalist, playwright and actress Dael Orlandersmith, opened at The Goodman Theater, (The Owen) 170 N.Dearborn, Chicago. Starring the accomplished Linda Gehringer, strategically directed by Chay Yew, the one-actor play will run through November 18th, 2018.
Gehringer did a yeoman’s job portraying a 70+ year life span in a series of vivid memories in the life of a complicated woman. We see Helene taking a long look back to childhood as a beloved toddler in Nazi-occupied Denmark, whose physician father expressed his contempt for the regime. We learn she was subjected to sexual violence as a young teenager and vilified before there was a “Me,Too” movement to frame her actions.
We go with Helene on a long monogamous journey, as she falls in love very young and very permanently with Lars, the love of her life. Her parents, fearing repercussions from the rape, wisely send her to University, where she becomes an expert on Flemish art. Life and the play take her to America, to a childless by choice marriage to Lars, following a cross-country music-drenched honeymoon, ultimately an art history teaching job at the University of Chicago- about which no details are given- and a jazz-enriched long marriage lived near her sister’s family in Andersonville.
The story is told- as their lives were lived- through the prism of Billie Holiday’s unlikely yet devotedly remembered interaction with Helene’s family in Denmark, and Helene and Lars’ lifelong devotion to that music. Set to the soft soundtrack of that sultry crooning, amid projected images of the heroin-addicted icon, Orlandersmith and Gehringer play out a life looked back from less than a month after the death of Lars, on what would have been his 80th birthday. Gehringer’s performance is nuanced, thoughtful, seemingly spontaneous; you can feel the longing, the rue, the exuberance- and the Danish accent is subtle and very effective.
While even a lean 95-minutes sometimes lagged, and the same plot devices were used too often, amid sometimes jarring emotional shifts from elation to despair, all of which could be addressed in a rewrite, this was for the most part an on-track simulacrum of a full life, rich, humorous, passionate and loving. Orlandersmith has stated “There is a theme throughout the work that I write…about childhood and the sins of the father, the sins of the mother, and how people take on the very thing they don’t like about their parents and they become them”. In the context of Lady in Denmark, Orlandsmith gave us a character fully connected to loving and thinking parents, and fully capable of thinking and loving after them. The prose is rich and evocative, very realistic.
As one would expect from The Goodman, the stagecraft was spot-on, the lighting effective, the costume appropriate. Kudos to Andrew Boyce for set design, Christine Pascual for costume design, Lee Fiskness for lighting design, Mikhail Fiksel for original music/ sound design, Stephan Mazurek for projection design and Eva Breneman, dialect coach.
For information and tickets to all the fine performances at The Goodman Theatre, go to www.goodmantheatre.org
All photos by Liz Lauren