By Ian Rigg
Circle Theatre’s First Lady Suite is an impressionist painting dedicated to the ire and ardor of women who embodied America. Making its debut on the probable eve of the first female president, the stunning triptych consists of three phenomenal panels, windows into the worlds of Jackie Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhower and Eleanor Roosevelt. It is a master class in acting from six spectacular Chicago actresses, taking tales of First Ladies and their inner circles and bringing each character to vivid life, each pigment paid with pain and passion. Their painting of music and lyrics depicts women who dreamed of flight, in every sense of the word.
Director Nicholas Reinhart and his workshop of artists have rendered a remarkable portrait, and they’ve done it by boldly leaning into the stunning strangeness of this bizarre biopic. They present a time-travelling Eisenhower without comment. They are unafraid to have the show’s final segment be performed with backs almost entirely to the audience for most of its duration. By making brave choices to complement tales that are anything but traditional, Reinhart and company highlight how the show uses fabrications to tell exquisite emotional truths. The production is unbound, unabashed, unbridled.
Music director Nick Graffagna has supervised a stunning score, bringing its atonality, dissonances and resolutions to their apexes. He has nurtured his singers’ blend to be perfect, and together they soar, stun and sting.
Not only are Alexa Weinzierl’s costumes period perfect, dresses and hats and wigs each evoking their respective eras: along with Adam Conway’s detailed dramaturgy and Marissa Druzbanski’s prop design, they keep the production grounded in reality, so it can diverge from it artistically. Maya Michele Fein drives reality right off the road with her lighting design, using quick blackouts and lights of different hues to lend the show its ominous overtones and comical chaos. Set designer Jimmy Jagos has built a set evocative of the play’s very premise: a white-trimmed suite with translucent walls, enough to see in, but not enough to be free of obfuscation.
Behind the scenes work is absolutely essential, but for this show in particular, the production is a grueling gauntlet of long songs that lives and dies by its performers. Having put brushes and palettes in their hands, the creative team turns the true test to their artists. They open their veins, and paint. Ecstatic beauty is the result.
Nicole Michelle Haskins plays opera singer Marian Anderson, and the First Lady of the prologue. She brings a humble but refined regality to her roles, and an utterly exquisite voice, like a field of lilacs swaying in the breeze as storm clouds gather overhead. Her performance is measured and empathetic, emphatically pleading with Eisenhower to persuade her husband to intervene at Little Rock, and then resigned to her loopy leap into the past with the addled First Lady (keep an eye out for her utterly hilarious, suspicious glances at her scene partner). At the time of the play’s 1993 debut, the prologue was performed by a nameless, African-American First Lady to inevitably arrive. In a smart bit of direction and costuming, Haskins seems to evoke Michelle Obama and does it magnificently.
Hannah Dawe’s Eisenhower is mad and magnificent. She keeps audiences utterly invested in a plot where she travels back in time to WWII to see if her husband Dwight had an affair, dragging an opera singer along with her. While it’s wild and wacky, Dawe makes it sheerly compelling. Completely devoted to her runaway-train role, Dawes bravely chugs along the brink of oblivion, earning each laugh and frown from the audience. Her eyes are the key to her performance, ranging from wide-eyed to squinted in mirth to glazed over. No performance in this show is one-note, and particularly not Dawes arpeggio of a character: she is utterly riotous, but is simultaneously devastating when she comes to grips with reality. Her brief turn as Lady Bird Johnson is one of the strangest, most riotous moments in a show full of them.
Pavi Proczko is the show’s only male, playing Dwight D. Eisenhower and a presidential aide to JFK, but he is to be commended for his rich voice, comic timing and ability to neither overplay nor underplay and remain steadfast among the mix. He is an equal delight to watch.
Tiffany Tatreau is the first act’s central character, Mary Gallagher, personal secretary to Jackie Kennedy (and confirmed by Tatreau’s knowing metaphor, “I bet that old tomcat misses me”) mistress to her husband Jack. Her comedic abilities are excellent, but second only to her sullen and stunned dramatic skills. Tatreau has created a quirky coquette character, pushed to the brink of exhaustion and experiencing a nightmare that portends vast tragedy. A briefer role as Ike’s chauffeur results in the most hilarious performance delivered from the trunk of a military vehicle ever seen onstage.
Courtney Jones doubles as Jackie Kennedy and Amelia Earhart, First Lady of Flight. She is brave to treat her secretary poorly: it creates a more multi-faceted character, and her song reveals that her distance is the result of shock. With a tremendous voice, she sings about “thousands of people,” flashbulbs aglow, her husband’s blood splattered over her. It’s evident in her face that she’s really picturing it all in front of her, eyes agape in agony. Her only break from demented dread is a self-aware stare of horror. It’s nice to see her play a more mirthful, playfully self-aware aviatrix in the third and final scene. Her Amelia is understated, subtly flirtatious, and knows what’s going on. With Jones at the controls, everything is smooth sailing.
Emily Grayson is another double, playing JFK’s secretary Evelyn Lincoln, and Eleanor Roosevelt herself. Grayson’s voice is a study in nuanced, lilting beauty. She is an excellent part singer, particularly evident in her excellent duets. Grayson’s Eleanor is eminently likable, even as her cohort and clandestine lover sings about the cruel and flighty nature of this First Lady in flight. With Grayson in the role of Mrs. Roosevelt, she doesn’t need to be the main character in her scene for it to revolve around her. The show contains a line from Earhart, along the lines of “great ladies simply are.” Emily Grayson simply is.
Neala Barron’s Lorena Hickok is as well-crafted a character as they come. A vocal powerhouse fueled by emotional wounds, her acerbic wit and battered sensitivity is a tour de force. It’s lovely, laugh-out-loud and lugubrious to watch Barron bemoan her fate, reporting on a Great Lady’s life while simultaneously kept at arm’s length from it, always backseat and separate from her lover, laughing sardonically at her lot in life because she mustn’t cry. The story-telling baton is deftly passed throughout the show, and it has not slipped one bit in Barron’s grasp. She brings it home, and her costars join her for a victory lap, filling the intimate space with spectacular sound. There’s a common conceit that these are “the women behind the powerful men.” This is a fallacy. Barron, Dawes, Grayson, Haskins, Jones, and Tatreau stand behind no one.
In the fine brushstrokes of beauteous voices, Circle Theatre’s First Lady Suite paints a portrait of loneliness, heartache, assassination, patriarchal malarky: the trials and tribulations of terrific women thrust onto the stage by their husbands, and the trials and tribulations of the women they dragged on with them. Performed at the perfect time, the phenomenal production mixes agony and ecstasy to depict what was, heralding the hope of what will be. The dream of flight will come to fruition.
Circle Theatre’s production of Michael John LaChiusa’s “First Lady Suite” runs through November 27 at the Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Cody Jolly Photography.