By Quinn Rigg
There are remedies for sickness, and there are fixes for what is broken, but there is no panacea for a broken heart. Boards can be nailed, cloth can be sewn, and fevers can be settled; but, save time and attention, nothing can relieve the suffering of a vulnerable desire denied its satisfaction. While a broken window simply leaves a draft, the invisibility of internal suffering leaves an existential hole that many cannot name. Northlight Theatre gives response to that lonely call echoing in the void with Songs for Nobodies by Joanna Murray Smith.
In a night of talent and transcendent magic, this 2010 play whisks the audience away into the role of confidant for five women whose lives were touched in meaningful, palpable ways by popular recording artists of their time. Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, and Maria Callas take to the stage alongside the women remembering them. Ten characters, each played deeply and articulately by the inimitable Bethany Thomas.
Songs for Nobodies is a pensive dive into the nature of loneliness and human invisibility. Aptly named, Smith’s play focuses on women who feel overlooked and unheard, sharing their intimate lives with the audience, hoping to find meaning in the mundanity of their suffering. One character muses on the fleeting nature of her happiness; another longs to be seen as she is; one craves excitement, another wants recognition. Regardless of ilk or creed, every character finds connection in the music of a starry someone else who feels so far off, yet closer than they think. While often cynical, Songs for Nobodies is honest and straightforward in its subject and its form.
Being a one-woman production, the challenge of creating ten three-dimensional characters is clear and daunting. Enter Bethany Thomas, who breathes life into this piece in a caliber all her own. Versatile and quick-witted, Thomas embodies her roles with resonant investment, flipping between roles on a dime regardless of dialect or voice type; seeing the breadth of her range is worth the price of admission by itself. The tour-de-force of her performance is nothing short of extraordinary.
Director Rob Lindley facilitates a piece that comfortably occupies silence in the face of furious emotional outrage. The tender intimacy of an actor alone on stage is the driving impetus to care and invest in the characters, and it is when space is given that these stories flourish. Lindley honors that space, and contrasts it with the explosivity of music, where feeling is turned to actionable expression.
While Bethany Thomas’ versatility spearheads the success of this production, a village of skilled professionals stands behind her. Scenic design from Jeffrey D. Kmiec is detailed with subtle touches of the divine. A constellation of microphones hangs above a crafted, tiered wooden stage underlit with its own footlights, pairing beautifully with the rich lighting design of Jesse Klug. Sound designer Lindsay Jones elevates emptiness into something sublime.
Andra Velis Simon conducts her band with unfailing nuance as music director and keyboard player. Together with drummer/accordionist Yulia Block and cellist/percussionist Kelsee Vandervall, Simon never misses a beat, energetically rising to stylistic challenges and intricacies of each artists’ voice — and Thomas’ one-of-a-kind talent.
Broken hearts may not be easily mended, but in witnessing the dreams and fears of another, we connect that much more to ourselves. In learning to listen — to open our eyes to what was previously overlooked — we learn to accept our losses, our fears, and our lives with clarity and authenticity. In revisiting classic tunes from the past, Northlight elucidates an invaluable truth for moving forward. Hindsight being twenty-twenty, we are empowered to find the big picture in looking back. Perhaps the cure for a broken heart is learning lessons from familiar aches, growing abundance from the desolation of what used to be.
Songs for Nobodies runs through October 31st at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. For tickets or more information, please click here.
Photos by Michael Brosilow.