BWW Review: LADY IN DENMARK at Goodman Theatre
Though often described as a 'universal language,' music, perhaps more than any other art form, is intricately linked to the memories and emotions of the individual. LADY IN DENMARK celebrates the power of music to weave together the strands of one life: in this case, the songs of Billie Holiday and the reminiscences of a fictional, elderly Danish immigrant living in Chicago.
Under the direction of Chay Yew, Linda Gehringer stars as Helene in this world premiere by Dael Orlandersmith, the latest of several recent one-actor shows at The Goodman Theatre. We meet Helene at home alone after her husband's 80th birthday party: an event from which he is absent, having died of cancer three weeks previously. True to her indomitable spirit, Helene has decided to hold the party anyway, cooking up a Danish feast and dancing the evening away with her friends and family. But as silence descends on her empty house, she faces her grief and loneliness with the sole comfort of Billie Holiday's music: the soundtrack that has helped her through a world war and a lifetime of loves and losses.
In an engaging, direct address to the audience, Helene recalls her childhood in Nazi-occupied Denmark: watching the tanks roll into Copenhagen, bidding farewell to friends who emigrated to neutral Sweden, and sneaking out to underground jazz clubs. And after the war comes the heart-warming central incident that inspired this play: a personal encounter with her idol, based on an anecdote from Holiday's autobiography in which she was a guest in the home of a Danish doctor's family during her 1954 European tour. Later, we follow Helene into adulthood as she pursues a career in academia, marries her beloved Lars, and begins a new life in Chicago. Ever present in Helene's narrative, and in Mikhail Fiksel's original music and sound design, are references to particular Holiday songs that she associates with the family, friends, and incidents she describes along the way.
One may wonder at the chosen subject matter of this play. Billie Holiday, though still a household name, is not very familiar to younger generations, and Denmark's history is a little-known subject in the U.S. To provide some background knowledge, a lobby display at the Goodman complements the program notes in outlining the Danish experience of WWII, the history of Scandinavian immigration to America, and details of Holiday's career and her European tour.
However, this information, while helpful, is not necessary to understand the core of the play, for Orlandersmith's storytelling neatly ties Helene's past to our own present. For example, one uncannily relevant sequence involves Helene's painful account of a sexual assault and a frank discussion of consent and victim shaming. In addition, we gain the clarity of an outsider's perspective on America's history of institutional racism as Helene recalls the shock of seeing "whites only" signs in the Jim Crow-era south. Without becoming overtly preachy, Orlandersmith relies on this woman from another time and place to shine a light on issues that still matter today.
But, primarily, this is a tale of one woman's journey from childhood to old age, and it honors the value of an ordinary life well lived. As in any one-actor show, it's a challenge to bring alive the many characters and settings that comprise the narrative. In this production, some characters feel more like caricatures, and their lines sound forced. However, this may be intentional, as they live here only through Helene's portrayal (and who doesn't exaggerate when describing someone they dislike)?
Also, the pacing of the storytelling feels jarring at times; we are plunged into some raw, disturbing anecdotes early in the play, while we are barely getting to know our protagonist. Again, this is likely the intent. After all, human memory does not follow a linear or logical path, and unwelcome memories are prone to come crashing into one's mind at any time.
However, these are minor quibbles. Overall, LADY IN DENMARK offers an entertaining, moving, and uplifting reflection on love, loss, and the power of music to help one through everything in between. Linda Gehringer's performance is warm and eminently likable, and Andrew Boyce's naturalistic set design makes one feel like a guest in Helene's neat, cozy home. And, in the end, it's a worthwhile place to spend an evening.
Review by Emily McClanathan
Photo by Liz Lauren