Roles of a Lifetime / by R. Sheth

Roles of a lifetime
10 ideal casting choices add realism and enthusiasm to Chicago stages

March 6, 2008

There are few greater pleasures in the theater than watching an actor in a role that he or she seems to have been destined to play.

Of course gifted actors -- and there are so many of them now at work on Chicago stages -- are able to make the most of any role that comes their way. Yet there have been many moments lately when I've recently found myself thinking certain actors should apply for patents on the characters they were playing.
Here are some examples of that ideal bonding of actor and role, all from productions either still running or recently ended. As any actor will tell you, you can't play a scene well without great partners, and each of the following performers has great company (some noted here), with one three-person cast forming such a perfect trinity it can only be thought of as a single entity.

Nambi Kelley can bring you to tears. It has something to do with an inner fire that just burns through her face and body, but also with her ability to make language visible. As the title character in "Harriet Jacobs," the story of a slave girl that just completed its run as part of Steppenwolf's Theatre for Young Adults Series, Kelley had a dreamy speech about the beauty of cotton. She made gorgeous poetry out of pain as she drew you back into history.

SEE HER: At the Goodman Theatre, where she will be part in the cast of Ifa Bayeza's "The Ballad of Emmett Till" (April 26 -June 1). Tickets: (312) 443-3800 .

Watching the nearly 92-year-old playwright Horton Foote speak earlier this week, I began to see his younger self in the form of Patrick Andrews, the 22-year-old who had just played an adolescent version of the writer in "The Actor," the quasi-biographical, one-act play in the Goodman Theatre's Horton Foote Festival. Andrews -- slight and graceful (he has a background in dance), with a face that evokes an earlier era -- brought such a winning ease and simplicity to the role of Foote's alter ego that it seemed he was born for the role. As it happens, Andrews, like Foote, grew up in a small Texas town and early on realized he wanted to be an actor.

SEE HIM: Playing a high school misfit in American Theater Company's "Speech and Debate" (April 16-May 11). Tickets: (773) 929-1031 .

Larry Yando has a resume so long and so impressive -- with leading roles in everything from Shakespeare and Stoppard to musicals (including the role of Scar in the national tour of "The Lion King") -- that it might seem beside the point to single him out for his portrayal of Jaques, the half-melancholy, half-cynical philosopher-in-exile in the altogether exceptional Writers' Theatre production of "As You Like It." But take note: You will never hear the "Seven Ages of Man" speech from this play given a more brilliant rendering. It is just the latest reminder of Yando's wonderfully quirky virtuosity.

SEE HIM: In "As You Like It," running through April 13. Tickets: (847) 242-6000 .

Monica Lopez is wonderfully fiery, funny and self-assured as Noor, the smart, seductive and conflicted young Arab-American novelist at the center of Silk Road Theater Project's production of "Our Enemies: Scenes of Love and Combat." The actress easily goes beyond the play's zesty politics of identity to get to the universal core of her character. For here is a very attractive, sophisticated, independent-minded woman who makes some ridiculous choices when it comes to men. And Lopez knows precisely how to put on a dress, wrap herself in a sheet and deal with the advances of several very different sorts of seducers.

SEE HER: In "Our Enemies," running through March 30. Tickets: (866) 811-4111 .

It is difficult to imagine what Jamie Abelson, a fleet, compact young actor with reddish-blond hair and a tension-etched face, must say to himself before he begins each performance of "Columbinus" at Raven Theatre. Abelson brings such a terrifying intelligence and reality to the role of Eric Harris -- the more aggressive and overtly twisted of the two killers in the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School -- that you begin to fear for his mental health. The level of rage and alienation is so palpable you feel you are getting dangerously close to the real shooter.

SEE HIM: In "Columbinus," running through March 15. Tickets: (773) 338-2177 .

Kathleen Ruhl is that most cherished thing -- a great character actress whose face and figure come emblazoned with an aura of earthiness and experience. Her portrayal of Rima, the still-sassy, love-scarred, hard-drinking matriarch in the TimeLine Theatre production of "Dolly West's Kitchen" (a play set in Ireland during World War II), is one of those peerless creations that seems effortless and wholly natural. But clearly it is the product of long years in the theater, and in life.

SEE HER: In "Dolly West's Kitchen," a magnificent piece of work, through March 22. Tickets: (773) 281-8463 .

Lesley Bevan, tall, dark and leggy, with a craggily glamorous face, invariably is cast in the role of the seductive but love-battered woman -- whether a romantic prairie spinster or an icy urban lesbian. As Amelia (standing in the photo above), attendant to the doomed Desdemona in Shakespeare's "Othello" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, she seizes on all that preparation to deftly capture the anger and desperation triggered by her character's rotten husband, Iago. And she lets us see the depth of her pain when she realizes she has betrayed her mistress (beautifully played by the intriguing Allison Batty -- pictured above, seated).

SEE HER: In "Othello," running through April 6. Tickets: (312) 595-5600 .

Given the absolutely symbiotic relationship of the two actors who play the Chicago cops in "A Steady Rain," it is wrong to choose one actor over another. But there is something about the way Randy Steinmeyer cranks up the level of his character's rage machine -- nearly foaming at the mouth as his eyes begin to take on a permanently stone cold dead stare -- that sends chills down one's spine. He wouldn't be half as good without Peter DeFaria's warmer, softer, more humane counterpoint. But Steinmeyer's eyes keep you riveted.

SEE HIM: In "A Steady Rain," running through April 27 at the Royal George Theatre Cabaret. Tickets: (312) 988-9000 .

Understatement is one of the more difficult qualities for any actor to sustain, but in "Journey's End," the exquisitely rendered play about life in the trenches of World War I, in a Griffin Theatre production at Theatre Building Chicago, Patterson fills his pipe, sips his tea and chats quietly and sanely in the midst of the most insane situation. Bald and mustachioed, the actor gives us a portrait of an ordinary man with extraordinary inner resources. An impeccable turn.

SEE HIM: In "Journey's End," running through Sunday. Tickets: (773) 327-5252 .

Sometimes it is truly impossible to separate the performances in a play. In Harold Pinter's three-hander "The Caretaker," now in a pitch-perfect production at Mary-Arrchie Theatre, Todd Lahrman is the saint, Richard Cotovsky is the weasel and Dan Kuhlman is a bit of the devil. Their timing, characterizations and interplay could not be more synchronous.

SEE THEM: In "The Caretaker," running through April 12. Tickets: (773) 871-0442.