By Barry Reszel
Riveting characterizations of five interesting people are the strongest take aways from Raven Theatre’s production of Rachel Bonds’ one-act Sundown Yellow Moon.
With scenes feeling like a series of vignettes, each offers a tad more insight into twin adult sisters visiting their divorced father at the family home in a small Tennessee college town. Josephine (Joey) is preparing for a two-year Fulbright in Berlin; aspiring singer-songwriter Rayleen (Ray) quit her job and relationship with her female boss and is in a songwriting funk. Dad Tom is hopefully awaiting clearance to return to his longtime private school teaching position following a suspension for misconduct.
Each of the three is emotionally flailing, leaving their interactions with each other and a small assortment of others rife with possibility. Tom is being counseled by Carver, a local therapist he’s seeing as part of his possible readmission plan. Joey, while out on one of her late night swims, meets Ted, a college professor poet whose novelist wife is out of town on a book tour. The father and daughters share an evening with longtime neighbors and friends Jean and Bobby.
The show premiered off-Broadway in 2017, earning a New York Times “critic’s pick” with a review that read, in part: “Ms. Bonds and the Bengsons know the redemptive joy of singing your sorrows and finding the rhymes in a world without reason.”
This reviewer finds that while the character descriptions combine to offer some fine theatrical infrastructure, for as good as the performances are at Raven, directed by Cody Estle, there’s just not enough interesting story to make this a compelling experience. The audience simply isn’t given enough backstory on Ray or Joey to understand their individual states of malaise. And patrons leave the theatre really without knowing what’s next for any of them. Finally, though billed as a play with music, with music by The Bengsons, self-described anthemic folk-punk music creators Abigail and Shaun Bengson, only the final song (of about four in the show) is especially memorable.
Led by the luminous Liz Chidester as Ray, the cast eeks out every morsel of emotion possible from this setting-driven slice of life. Chidester is making a name for herself on storefront Chicagoland stages, turning in memorable recent performances at Refuge and Firebrand. This resident teaching artist at the Old Town School of Folk Music, in addition to sympathetic characterization in Sundown, also delivers the sole lovely musical contribution in the final song. It’s time for the casting directors in some of the area’s larger theatres to bring Chidester under ever brighter lights.
So, too, Diana Coates is terrific as sister Joey, delivering a complex character who audiences would love to know more about. Veteran actor Will Casey is a compelling Tom, Josh Odor a handsome, lonesome Ted and Jordan Dell Harris a kindly old soul as Carver. Like the sisters, these are intriguing characters who are, unfortunately, woefully underdeveloped. A bright spot is the rustic Tennessee feel provided by fabulous Scenic Designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec, boosted by Becca Jeffords terrific lighting and Eric Backus‘ sound effects.
As is the case with nearly all of Chicagoland’s professional theatrical productions, it’s easy to see the hard work of exceptionally talented professionals on the Raven stage. It’s simply too bad the author’s development of this particular story isn’t enough to elicit greater enthusiasm.
Raven Theatre presents “Sundown Yellow Moon” through Nov. 17 at 6157 N. Clark St., Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.