'Talking With' talks about women's lives

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By Doug Deuchler

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The Saltbox Theatre Collective's new production of Talking With is a fascinating evening of 11 often-bittersweet portraits of women of various ages. Many of them have reacted to disappointments and life's challenges by melting into private worlds. 

 Eleven talented actresses present their monologues, sharply written by "Jane Martin" — a pseudonym that most sources now say is Jon Jory. This unique show is Saltbox's second production of their first season in the intimate "black box" space — the storefront performance area with tiers of seats in the east end of Madison Street Theater, 1010 Madison St. 

Director Brian Fruits does fine work, providing us with laughter, occasional tears, and surprising insights into the lives of these distinctive female characters.

 We feel close to these women in the intimacy of the almost bare stage. There are six vignettes in the first act and five in the second. Several thematic elements echo from one scene to the next, but these characters are each essentially unrelated. The only connective thread is that the women have each had life kick them in the teeth one way or another. 

There is no unified plot or single story and none of the actresses interact with each other. Some of the quirky monologues are moving and even bizarre but also frequently funny. Each of the women seems to have a compelling need to share her story with us. Every one of them is filled with passion and insight.

 Katie Zisson plays a washed-up rodeo bronco-buster who has been cut from the ranks because the "suits" who now run the performances want more glitz, glamor, and showbiz. Joy Schoeph makes us feel her pain as a young woman who describes the nobility of her strong-willed mother's last days in a piece called "Clear Glass Marbles." Terri Bernstein is a lonely, middle-aged housewife who secretly dresses up as characters from the Oz books whenever possible while cleaning house. Her real life is pale and dull compared to the joy her secret world brings her. Bernstein wears an incredibly colorful costume and headdress (complete with bright red yarn hair) as the Patchwork Girl of Oz.

 There is a 15-minute intermission. Each of the monologues runs about 10 minutes.

 Several of the characters portrayed are actresses. Emma Schmidt-Swartz opens the show discussing conflicts she's had working in negative situations with various unsupportive directors. She chats with us, putting on her costume and finishing her make-up as she's about ready to go onstage. Lauren Demerath plays a brash, high-strung auditioning actress who shows up with her black cat. The piece is hilarious and her feline fellow-performer is surprisingly well-behaved.

 A rather narcissistic and self-important baton twirler, played by Alexandria Rust, shares both the agony and the ecstasy of her performances. Though she's often felt disrespected, she feels a strong dedication to her "calling." Rust is multitalented, even doing her own baton twirling.

 In "Lamps," Barbara Berndt plays an older woman fascinated with the effects of light and shadows. Her beautiful monologue involves the use of a number of different floor lamps she turns on and off as she goes about her rented loft. She reflects on the challenges of aging.

 In a very unique monologue, Janie Crick plays a Southern "snake handler" religious revivalist. 

 Veteran actress Marie Goodkin is a sweet, innocent woman who would like to live in what she sees as the peace, security, cleanliness and order of McDonald's. She's seated in a wheelchair in some sort of contained setting, possibly a nursing home. Her monologue is called "French Fries."

 Akilah King makes us feel her pain as a married woman in the final throes of a long labor. She knows she is about to give birth to a "deformed" infant.

 The final monologue, called "Marked," features Wendy Venlos-Becker playing an unstable woman with a deep scar on her cheek and a glass of sangria in her hand. She also has a number of tattoos, each of which she explains. 

 Don Kovach did the sound mixing and Alexis Vlahos runs the lights and sound board. Each brief break between the scenes features appropriate music to amplify elements in the monologues.

Steven Cox is the stage manager. April Hunsucker designed the costumes and Ian Donegan is props master and scenic designer. Corwyn Cullum is the house manager.

Producers Patricia Demerath and Carol Skinner Lawrence received awards of appreciation and recognition the night I attended.

This is a very solid production with remarkable performances.

 Saltbox Theatre Collective's "Talking With" runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. through Nov. 22. Purchase tickets at sbtctalkingwith.brownpapertickets.com. Madison Street Theatre is located at 1010 Madison St. Call 312-282-1750 or visit www.mstoakpark.com

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