The Steppenwolf Theater Company used to have a reputation for producing mostly muscular stage work; it was a theater of blood, sweat, and tears. In more recent years, however, this heralded Chicago institution has matured into a hotbed of a far wider variety of theater. Regardless, of what kind of show it produces, Steppenwolf steadfastly continues to offer challenging and provocative work of a very high order — such as the brilliant When the Messenger Is Hot, now being presented as the opening production of 59E59 Theaters’ GoChicago! Festival.
When the Messenger is Hot is a work by women and about women, but it will delight anyone wise enough to buy a ticket. Laura Eason has adapted Elizabeth Crane’s book, and aided and abetted by director Jessica Thebus, they have created a very funny play about becoming your own special self. It’s also about mothers and daughters, grief, need, and learning how to love.
There is one obstacle that has to be quickly overcome in order to settle in and enjoy the play. When it begins, we meet Mom (Molly Regan), whom we’re told died three years earlier but shouldn’t have, and has mysteriously reappeared in a North Dakota bus depot. Mom is on the phone with her daughter, Josie — except there are three young women (Kate Arrington, Lauren Katz, and Amy Warren) on the phone having this conversation with “their” mother. That’s the confusing part. Are they sisters? Are they three different women having the same weird experience? You’ll be at sea for a few minutes until you finally accept the conceit that all three women are different aspects of Josie’s personality.
Once we learn that Mom is now alive and coming to visit her daughter in Chicago, the play then flashes back to show us the difficult nature of the relationship between Mom and Josie, taking comic pains to describe how much the daughter needed her mother’s approval but could never quite get it.
When her mother dies of cancer, Josie — all three Josie’s — go into a tailspin. The next three years of Josie’s life seesaw between heartbreaking and hilarious as she searches for love with guys who are all wrong for her. All the men in her life are played by Coburn Goss, superbly portraying a range of young men that run the gamut from a gay pal to a crackhead.
The dialogue sparkles. The direction is flawless and often inspired — especially that long, emotional silence when Josie has her first success as a writer after her mother’s death. Oh, the aching emptiness! The acting is stellar throughout. The play culminates in one breathtaking scene when Josie (in this case, Kate Arrington) finally gives up the ghost of her mother in the arms of a gentle North Dakota short order cook. Her unspoken journey in his arms from grief to acceptance is just about the boldest piece of theater we’ve seen in a very long time.
Simple but effective set design by Marcus Stephens, sharply defined lighting design by J.R. Lederle, and character defining costume design by Debbie Baer all contribute to the play’s success. Most of all, 59E59 Theaters deserves special praise for plucking this work out of Steppenwolf’s First Look series and bringing it to New York. Go!