Review: L'IMITATION OF LIFE Doesn't Hold Back
One hesitates to use the word "mature" when describing L'IMITATION OF LIFE, Hell in a Handbag's revival of their 2013 hit. To do so would imply that their previous works are somehow immature. Still, at the hands of director Stevie Love, the show deftly tackles issues of institutional racism and white privilege in a parody 1959's "Imitation of Life." It also manages to be side-splittingly funny.
Ed Jones stars as Lana Turner. Having been cleared of a murder charge (much like the real Lana), she is desperate to get her career back on track, even if it means having to do the occasional toilet bowl cleaner commercial while wearing a bejeweled toilet seat ("You aren't cheap," one character tells her, "You're just drastically marked down."). Jones' Lana is occasionally clueless and often times seems to be dancing along the edge of a nervous breakdown. Jones is in rare comedic form, hitting the right absurdist tones alongside and endless parade of costume changes (costumes by Gary Nocco)
Robert Williams' embodies Annie Johnson, Lana's long-suffering maid, with a quiet nobility. Playing the "straight man" in a comedy painted with broad strokes is usually a thankless task, but, by simply allowing the camp, chaos and comedy to happen around Annie, Williams' performance succeeds in elevating the whole proceeding. It brings the elements of class, race and privilege into heightened view.
Ashley J. Hicks plays Annie's daughter, Sara Jane. Light skinned and able to pass as white, she shuns her mother even while Annie attempts to install some sense of pride in one's self no matter what your color. Hicks proves game in handling the more off-the-wall things required by the plot (the second act ending in particular), but -like Williams-brings a certain raw intensity to her performance. The scenes between mother and daughter are heartbreaking. It's sad to think that even now the world is filled with Sara Janes who believe it is easier to pass as white than to affect any meaningful change in racial politics (never mind that the Lanas of the world continue to appear clueless or unable/unwilling to push us to a point of true equality).
As Lana's daughter Suzie, Katherine Bellantone doesn't initially have as much to do as Hicks. Her performance in the second act seems to be channeling Sandra Dee (who originated the role in the film), though.
Chazie Bly plays Lana's love interest Steve Martin (not that Steve Martin). Big hearted but ever so dim-witted, the photographer dreams of exhibiting in prestigious places like the "Googlieheim." He wants Lana to put her career on hold to become a wife and mother and -this being a HIAH show, regales her with tales of military showers and sexual ambiguity. Bly has perfected the goofy and loyal leading man role.
Allison Petriollo and Chase Wheaton-Wearle play everyone else from milk men to sleazy Broadway agents. Both could teach a master class on making the most of your role as both put personality and character into what usually amounts to walk-on/walk-off roles with little or no dialogue.
Despite being a parody of a 1959 film, L'IMITATION OF LIFE feels incredibly timely. This camp comedy hits a surprising, dramatic nerve.
L'IMITATION OF LIFE runs through May 6 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont. Tickets $29-$34. 773.327.5252 or www.handbagproductions.com