The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe 

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Apple Tree Theatre Company

Is there life after Lily? The Apple Tree Theatre Company is about to find out: it's reviving The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe sans Tomlin. Will this much-praised script work as more than a luxury vehicle for an established talent? After all, there isn't a line in Jane Wagner's script that wasn't written with Tomlin in mind, and several creations (society dame Kate, for instance) call up earlier Tomlin characters (the arrogant Mrs. Beasley).

The good news is that, given Ross Lehman's spare staging and Peggy Roeder's rich portrayals, the truths of this play lose little in translation. A crafty comedienne, Roeder deftly delineates and deepens the 12 characters, 10 women and 2 men. Though she lacks Tomlin's whiplash delivery, Roeder puts her own gleeful mark on such seemingly impregnable Tomlin turns as the narrator Trudy, a happily crazed bag lady and creative consultant to extraterrestrials. Moreover, to make the scenes relevant to local audiences, Lehman has transplanted them to Chicago locales (Carnegie Hall to Orchestra Hall, etc).

At its best Search has value as a sort of time capsule: this protean entertainment covers a host of contemporary dislocations and dilemmas, in effect reproducing our world in a dozen voices. True, the script can seem self-consciously glib and epigrammatic (and all the more so given Roeder's cartoonlike naturalism). What remains remarkable is how Wagner keeps the character humor from spinning off into star-turn self-indulgence by constantly connecting the women in satisfying, even astonishing ways.

The most lovable of them is homeless Trudy, dressed in umbrella hat, rolled-down panty hose, and upside-down wig (to keep it clean). Significantly, she's the one character who's out of touch with reality--and the happiest: "Reality is the leading cause of stress amongst those in touch with it . . . Since I put reality on the back burner, my days are jam-packed and fun-filled."

Subject to trances induced by remote control, Trudy erupts into, among other characters, Agnus Angst. Dolled up in chains and Day-Glo hair, the angry 15-year-old punker is suspiciously articulate in her rage against being born into a botched world: "I look at my family, I feel like a detached retina." Confused by Agnus's posteverything alienation but unable to turn it into performance art as she does are her addlepated grandparents, Lud and Marie.

Other searchers include Chrissy, the desperately chirpy fitness nut ("I have gained and lost the same ten pounds so many times my cellulite must have deja vu"). A jobless "seminar hopper," Chrissy has rushed from one false hope to another; now she fears any change. Equally world-weary is poor little rich girl Kate ("one big yawn with a bad haircut," as she calls herself); she's so jaded she's almost allergic to happiness, even in the sack: "It's one thing to tolerate a boring marriage, but a boring affair does not make sense." Yet in a marvelous moment near the end Wagner links Chrissy and Kate--one dead, one returning to life.

Most of the second act is a sort of fast-forward Heidi Chronicles that draws three new characters into a web of endangered sisterhood. Moving from the doomed ERA fervor of the 70s to the 90s (the script's been updated to include Carol Moseley Braun), this is the tale of bisexual career woman Lyn, a lady who wants it all--and gets it. Take her disastrous marriage to Bob, a caring new-age man who proves more sensitive to his geodesic-dome house and isolation tank than to anyone around him. Bonding with Lyn are Edie, a fiery lesbian feminist whose one joy is the violinist son she conceived through artificial insemination, and disco- crazy Marge, who was once raped, has never recovered, and is now burned out on booze.

Though Wagner almost buries this long sequence under an avalanche of past cultural icons, she never indulges in the cheap laugh that dulls the necessary pain. Refusing to mourn the women's movement, Wagner depicts these three as battered believers in an equality that eludes them.

The final moment offers something like an apotheosis. Trudy's aliens tell her that life's very meaninglessness is cause for awe: "At the point where you can comprehend how incomprehensible it all is, you're about as smart as you need to be." Trudy's final description brings together four of the women in a shared joke, an epiphany full of the solidarity of just being alive.

Though Wagner indicts a society that thrives on phony dreams, she also offers the hint of an antidote--in Agnus's loudmouthed refusal to accept a soiled planet, in Kate's discovery of a suicide note that bears not a trace of bitterness, and in Trudy's final testimony, a hymn to the theater: the aliens see their first play and get their first goose bumps. "Yeah, to see a group of strangers sitting together in the dark, laughing and crying about the same things," Trudy says, "that just knocked them out."

Backed up by splendidly timed sound and light effects by Larry Mohl and Todd Hensley on Apple Tree's intimate stage, Roeder conjures up Trudy (gravel voice, stiff gait, mischievous squint), silky-smooth Kate, tough-as-nails Brandy (from Uptown), howling Agnus--memorable members of an indomitable crew. If any technique shows through Roeder's work, it's in the service of a hilarious honesty. Her wondering women achieve Dickensian dimensions.


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