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[whitespace] Madden Family
All in the Family: The Madden women face life while their men are overseas after WWI.

Sisters of Change

A distaff household struggles with the new ideas of 1919 in 'Ladyhouse Blues'

By Heather Zimmerman

IT'S HARD TO IMAGINE that less than 100 years ago, many people lived without phones or electricity--there was life before the Internet? But when it comes to family relationships, playwright Kevin O'Morrison posits that the more things change, the more they stay the same. O'Morrison's drama Ladyhouse Blues follows several days in the lives of four sisters and their mother living in working-class St. Louis in 1919. City Lights Theater Company makes an intriguing departure from its somewhat experimental repertoire with this more conventional play.

Ladyhouse Blues is a quiet, character-driven tale steeped in WWI culture. The members of the all-female Madden household, with their menfolk away, variously represent the evolving roles of women at this time: the strict, God-fearing mother, Liz (Susan E. Freeman), distrusts all modern innovations; the eldest daughter, Helen (Valerie Weak), is a conflicted amalgam of pragmatism and emotion, suffering from tuberculosis; Dot (Becky Brown) is discovering the downside of having married "well"; Terry (Mary McGloin) is a strident labor activist; and the youngest, Eylie (Christy Holy), is blissfully caught up in plans to wed her sweetheart.

The sisters are all more willing than their mother to embrace new ideas, but only Terry's opinions differ that greatly from the others'. Her support of labor unions constantly stirs up Liz's very vocal hatred of "Bolshevikis." But more interesting are the backbiting exchanges between Dot, newly cosmopolitan, and Helen, ostracized by the community for having married a German American.

O'Morrison skillfully captures the antagonism between all the Madden females, but we never get as strong a sense of how these women might also rely on each other. O'Morrison's portrayal of family unity is hampered by the fact that at many crucial moments, the characters burst into song, harmonizing on WWI-era tunes. Director Ross Nelson has kept the staging as dynamic as possible for a play that relies solely on dialogue for action. Weak's Helen is both convincingly fragile and unyieldingly stubborn; she has nice chemistry with Brown, who inspires unexpected sympathy as an unhappy would-be socialite. Freeman portrays Liz as an iron-fisted mom with a heart of gold, but her bitterness at life's hardships tends to come through more strongly than her affection for her girls.

John Harrison York's detailed set provides a good sense of the era, and likewise, Heather McCown's costumes illustrate the women's slowly changing roles--there's a big difference, for example, in the skirt lengths worn at home and out in public. Hemlines aside, it's easy to draw some comparisons between post-WWI times and turn-of-the-20th-century Silicon Valley: the cost of living is prohibitively high, what defines a "foreigner" remains as politically motivated as ever and groundbreaking technology has vastly changed the world. O'Morrison also shows that family dynamics haven't changed that much in the past century, but though he tries, he can't quite capture the idea that "sisterhood" means more than having siblings.

Ladyhouse Blues plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 7pm through Aug. 12 at City Lights Theater, 529 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets are $18 Friday-Saturday/$15 Thursday and Sunday. (408.295.4200)

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From the July 20-26, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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