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HEAT, Chicago Dramatists. A mother, two daughters, and a granddaughter spend a day on the front porch of the family home and end up unearthing all the family secrets. Playwright Marsha Estell creates a unique and believable world using familiar conflicts: sibling rivalry, mother-daughter tension, the divisions created by romantic love. Chekhov, O'Neill, Williams, and Hansberry all addressed these subjects in their own milieus, while Estell explores them in a contemporary African-American family.

Distinctive, fully realized characters provide much of the pleasure. Mudear (pronounced "Medea") is still ruling the roost though her mind is beginning to go; middle-aged daughters Sharon and Rose are still playing their childhood roles of the Reliable One and the Irresponsible One; and Sharon's daughter, Shelly, is trying to grow up without losing the privileges of being the baby. Under Russ Tutterow's sensitive direction, Saralynne Crittenden is superb as Mudear, combining a lifetime of authority with just a hint of frail old age. She's well supported by Mimi Ayers as Sharon, Jillian Pollock-Reeves as Shelly, and especially Felisha D. McNeal as Rose, the restless rebel who turns out to be the family anchor. Humor flows naturally from their relationships and serves both to leaven and to underscore the play's serious side.

The second act tends toward melodrama because Estell is unwilling to decide whose play this is, which leads to four climactic scenes in a row. But while noting this flaw with one hand, I was wiping my eyes with the other.

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