Lela and Co. Dare the Audience to Look Past the Narrative @ Steep Theatre

3.5 stars of 4

Lela and Co., in its U.S. premiere at Steep Theatre, is a testament to storytelling and truth telling, and how they intertwine. Unlike in the hyper-theatrical London premiere, the Steep audience is invited into a cozy sitting room, harkening to a time when colonial attitudes implied the civilized counterpart to natives of occupied lands, a tradition continued by paternalistic military operations and corporate globalization in the present. Women sing… operatic arias in the sound design and, as Lela explains, to welcome children to the world and bid elders farewell in death...and men are responsible for the events in between. With no fanfare, Lela launches into her true story, though she allows that sometimes falsehoods may become truth in the telling. What follows is an often harrowing testimony and an indictment of the people, mostly men, who tried to claim Lela’s story by increasingly repressive means.

While the script contains some distractingly contemporary asides, and the realism of Joe Schermoly’s meticulous set does not allow for the universality of a less cluttered space (though it also forces actors and audience into the same space and complicity), what makes Cordelia Lynn’s Lela and Co. so powerful is its title character’s determination to reclaim her story, despite interruptions and the pain of memory that inevitably overtakes her at various times in the narrative. Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel as Lela is charming, chipper, and gracious, trying hard to understand others even as she reclaims her version of what happened, and plowing ahead with steely determination. Lela begins at the beginning, with her birth during a storm, being sung into the world by her maiden aunts, as her mom was “felled” like a tree. She tells of her childhood in the mountain village with some nostalgia for her mother, grandmother, aunts, sisters and the man of the house, her father, who loved her and bought her cake, though he would also fly into rages at the ingratitude of his three daughters and their mother. But, as Lela tells us, he was a good man. There are ominous hints of what is to come—mention of seeing people and buildings felled and a first husband, as well as the all-too visceral glimpse of her father’s violent rage. However, it is only when her sister (not the birdlike one, but the one with curves like Marilyn Monroe) marries a man from the city that horrors of Lela’s story begin to unfold. Her creepy brother-in-law begins to assert control over her story, not allowing her to correct her narrative (and imposing his own). He introduces Lela to his friend, a fellow businessman from across the border. This friend becomes Lela’s first “husband,” and he takes her to his house with the comfortable couches a hundred miles from her home. War begins and Lela describes how her world shrinks—with her husband justifying his restriction of her movements and his exploitation as necessary to her physical and economic security: locks appear on the doors, passports are kept under lock and key, she disappears from the social life of the household. Lela’s story makes it clear that war’s victims are not just those at the frontlines, and the victors are those who take advantage of the economic opportunities that it offers. The only respite from the darkness that Lela finds herself in is a young soldier whose naiveté allows him to retain his ingenuous tenderness for humanity—but does not temper his fear of reprisal when he has a chance to offer real help. Chris Chmelik is endearingly fumbling as the young soldier, volatile and controlling as Lela’s father and chillingly self-involved as her brother-in-law and husband. As the representative and embodiment of all the males that shape the narrative, he also brings an overarching sense of entitlement to his disparate and well-realized roles.

At the helm of the U.S. premiere of Lela and Co., Robin Witt has imposed her own slant on the play by creating a setting where the audience occupies the same space as the actors, forcing the realization that too often bearing witness is not enough. The powers that be are mundane and recognizable in the well-tailored suit that the male characters share—courtesy of costume designer Jessica Kuehnau Wardell. Our hostess is resplendent in a modest, floral party dress that belies the atrocities that she has seen and experienced. The setting is comfortable and reassuring, middle class, with a hint of Victorian respectability—the back room easy to ignore; picture frames contain images reminiscent of the mountain landscapes of Lela’s home and nothing: the other frames remain to be filled. Props designer Maria DeFabo Akin reinforces the colonial vestiges of the set. Sound designer Thomas Dixon sets the scene with operatic arias, also reinforcing the sense that this story and the attitudes that allow it to exist began long in the past, though the sound design is more successful on the whole when it takes us back to the worlds that Lela describes. Lighting designer Brandon Wardell alternates between warm, soft lighting that illuminates the veneer that masks the harsh reality, and the harsh white light that shines on the horrific details that trap Lela in her story (in unforgiving pools of light that isolate Lela, sometimes alone and sometimes with the men that shape her memories); when the story descends into unbearable darkness, the light leaves as well. The veneer of respectability makes it easy to be lulled into a sense of security, and only the unflinching words of the narrative can tear down the façade that shelters those around Lela. Witt has chosen a naturalistic staging, with a scarred survivor at its center, who leaves part of her narrative for the audience to carry as she writes her own future built on the truths she must adopt to do so.

Words are powerful, but ultimately women need agency over more than just the songs (beginning, middle or end). Telling the truth is important, but acting on it more so, as the encounter with a well-intentioned soldier demonstrates. Despite witnessing and sharing her past, Lela’s power lies in her ability to survive and change her future, and to teach her child to reject the attitudes that kept her from writing her own story in the past. Lela and Co. contains some phrases that seem jarringly contemporary, and the setting that director Robin Witt has chosen may not always serve the theatrical elements of the play, but ultimately both playwright and director create a powerful examination of the attitudes and economies that allow the brutalization and exploitation of others to continue, despite the good intentions of witnesses and sometimes even the perpetrators.  Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel is pitch-perfect in her portrayal of the title character, searing in its guileless but determined charm, and Chris Chmelik’s smug portrayal of the male characters provides chilling support.

Lela and Co. runs through August 19 at Steep Theatre, 1115 West Berwyn, Chicago. Performances take place Thursday – Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm. Tickets are $10 (access tickets) - $35 and are available by calling 773-649-3186 or at steeptheatre.com.

Kerstin Broockmann spent years working in Chicago storefront theaters, mostly as a director, but also venturing into performing, designing lights and violence, stage management and writing/adaptation. Some of her favorite theatrical experiences include work with Azusa, Pyewacket, Rogue, A Sense of Urgency, The Strange Tree Group, Tinfish and Tripaway. She served for several years on the board of the Women’s Theater Alliance and helped coordinate the New Plays Workshop and Festival for two years, as well as editing and contributing to the WTA Newsletter for a spell. Now an AMS-Certified elementary teacher at Intercultural Montessori Language School, Kerstin’s directing work in recent years has been limited to staged readings, though she was also able to sneak in a production of Don Juan in Hell for Rogue Theater as well. A former amateur boxer, Kerstin has also written ringside reports for the blog Cyber Boxing Zone.