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The Underscoring Moments of Life Are at the Center of Lady in Denmark

Dael Orlandersmith writes about a Danish woman's life and love for jazz.

Linda Gehringer (Helene) in Lady in Denmark, written by Dael Orlandersmith and directed by Chay Yew at the Goodman Theatre.
(© Liz Lauren)

The world premiere of Dael Orlandersmith's Lady in Denmark, now playing at the Goodman Theatre, explores themes of love, loss, loneliness, and jazz. The solo show features the character Helene (Linda Gehringer), a fictional woman who was born and raised in Denmark before moving to Chicago in the 1960s and making a home in the Scandinavian neighborhood of Andersonville. As the show begins, Helene is cleaning up after throwing an 80th birthday party for her late husband, Lars, who died only three weeks prior. While she is grieving, she's surviving, partly through reliving memories.

There's no conceit or framing device to prompt Helene's breaking of the fourth wall. She simply speaks. Her stories range from the mundane to the profound to the preachy, and they don't follow any clear path: Complaints about her great-nephew's wife are dispersed among anecdotes about a childhood in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen. But one way or another, her stories always return to her love for her favorite musician: Billie Holiday.

Holiday kicked off her first European tour in Copenhagen in 1954. At the time, Europe seemed like a haven for black musicians who were tired of playing segregated clubs in New York and travelling through the perilous sundown towns of the south while on tour. In her autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday mentioned the hospitality of a Danish doctor who insisted on inviting her to his home to treat a persistent cough. In Lady in Denmark, that doctor is Helene's father, and, as Helene recalls it, he didn't just treat her cough, but also begged her to stay in Copenhagen to seek compassionate treatment for her narcotics addiction. She demurred, and five years later, at age 44, she died.

The loss of her musical idol hit Helene hard. But life goes on, and with it comes more loss. Helene spends much of her time onstage lamenting the death of the people she loves — of her parents in their 60s, her childhood friend, and now her beloved husband. Orlandersmith's script doesn't say anything new or particularly penetrating about grief, and that's okay. Helene is an ordinary person, just like any of us.

Lady in Denmark is appealing because it is relatable, but it feels dramatically lacking. Though it meanders from story to story, it never truly drags, a testament to Gehringer's steady stage presence more than anything. Without reading the program notes, an audience member could be forgiven for mistaking Orlandersmith's work of fiction for a theatrical memoir, thanks to Gehringer's immersive commitment to the role. Director Chay Yew's staging is simple and seamless, further emphasizing the play's conversational tone.

Lars and Helene's house is rendered in expansive detail by Andrew Boyce, with records, books, and memories filling every available space. At times, projection designer Stephan Mazurek fills the back wall with projections, a thoroughly unnecessary element. Gehringer, so connected to Helene's life story, can conjure images with her words alone, no digital assistance required. The play is oddly light on Holiday's music, with songs appearing sparsely and lasting only seconds at a time.

Watching Lady in Denmark feels more like a visit with a lifelong neighbor than a night at the theater. Whether that's an enticing or unappealing theatrical prospect is up to the viewer. But with Orlandersmith's intimate storytelling and Gehringer's expressive performance, it is certainly sincere.