'Small' is big on wit and energy

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By Doug Deuchler

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Reviewing new plays can be precarious. While it's always exciting to witness the presentation of works-in-progress, there are often noticeable shortcomings that may or may not be alleviated with further revision and performance. It's a challenge to be constructively critical with fresh material that is still evolving and finding its way with audiences.

Thus I approached the opening night of Oak Park playwright Paul Amandes' new work, Small, the first show of Open Door Theater's 2012-2013 season, with a certain amount of reluctance and anxiety. But I am happy to report that this play is not only thought-provoking and well-constructed, it's been mounted in a solid, energized production. Director Marti Lyons and her dynamic all-female ensemble present a lively, contemporary show that's witty and enjoyable.

Small, just in time for election season, provides behind-the-scenes insight into politics — especially fictional Illinois politics. Much of the action takes place in a wood-paneled private room in The Snug, a Loop pub with a Celtic atmosphere that's a favorite watering hole for plotting politicians and their underlings.

Just three months before a gubernatorial election, the sitting governor must abruptly drop out of the race due to dire health reasons. Some extremely diverse women rally behind a politician who has a solid record but will undoubtedly be a hard sell. He's a "little person," one of those folks who back in the day would have been called a "midget." (Hence the significance of the title.)

Local veteran actress Annie Slivinski is fearless and hilarious as Doe McCarthy, a Texas political pro with a checkered history, recruited to be unseen Richard Powell's campaign manager. In the opening scene, as she's gobbling a Cinnabon while being driven to a political meeting, she climbs into the back seat of the moving car as it zips up Lake Shore Drive so she can change and freshen up with a new application of deodorant. All the while she's chatting with her driver (Jill Karrenbrock), never missing a beat as she mentions she doesn't "get along with women in general" and that she's dropped everything, including her job as assistant director of the Texarkana Park District, to come to Chicago after an absence of six years to throw herself into Powell's campaign. Her driver, we learn, is actually the politician's devoted daughter.

Meredith Hogeland is an intense, late-20s, political science professor with the unwieldy name Anastasia Lambropoulos. While she's waiting for Doe in The Snug she connects with an attractive, outspoken Irish barmaid named Siobhann O'Shaughnessy, played by Laura Korn. There are sparks between this pair on multiple levels.

Exposition is often awkward in new plays. But Amandes inserts the back story we need to grasp the unfolding action quite effortlessly into his dialogue.

Anastasia prefers her name pronounced "Uh-nost'-a-see-a" but Doe calls her "Hey, Nasty — see ya!"

With her slight twang and dixie roots, Doe asks, "Do I look gubernatorial or just plain 'goober'?" The younger woman refers to Doe as a has-been, yet she likes her "shoot from the hip" modus operandi. They become allies.

Eden Trounter, played by Kona Burks, is a high-powered political adviser who thinks Doe's "been under a political icecap since Y2K." Burks makes her grand entrance by falling to the floor, slipping in some drinks and appetizers waitress Siobhann has just spilled.

These strong, opinionated women are often in opposition but unite in their desire to mount diminutive Powell as a viable candidate for Illinois governor. They are each aware of the fact that even though he's well-traveled, articulate, and intelligent, Richard Powell may be too "unique" and that photo ops may make him look like a "garden gnome." (Several of the characters even use the code name "Little Richard," a reference to the '50s rocker.)

Lots of political realities are addressed. Doe is angered that Richard Powell must be such a "shining star" and "an altar boy" to offset his size inadequacy.

The five women characters are credible and well-developed. As they team up to launch his campaign, it's clear that though we may vote for individuals, we're really responding to an entire team. The play also raises a variety of questions, such as what do voters really want — track record and ability or image and appearance?

The plot unfolds in a fascinating, unpredictable manner that draws us in and keeps us curious.

A note from playwright Amandes in the playbill mentions that this new work has been "workshopped" with audiences for only a few months, and that the entire second act was developed as recently as late summer. This is remarkable.

Izumi Inaba designed the set, a solid wooden private restaurant room with sconce lights and frosted windows that allow us to see folks passing by in the hall outside. A couple of episodes in cars are played stage left with the actors seated on chairs.

Steven Saliny, the technical director, also created the sound design. Catherine Connelly is stage manager.

Small by Paul Amandes at Open Door Theater is timely and superbly performed. It has none of the rough spots or weaknesses often seen in new plays. This solidly structured work flows smoothly and buoyantly. The performance runs exactly two hours with one intermission.

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