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At Writers' Theatre, a vengeful redhead snaps

THEATER REVIEW: "The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead" at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe ★★½

Chris Jones

2:14 AM CDT, May 31, 2012

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Ever since their collective appearance at the Stratford Festival, blondes, brunettes and vengeful redheads have been popping up at regional theaters all across North America.

It's not hard to see why.

Robert Hewett's Australian play, now on the boards at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe, has a seductive, gently outre title that seems to promise mild titillation and a crime of the heart. It offers an actress a rare and tempting showcase of seven different roles, ranging from an elderly woman to a beer-swilling dude to a 4-year-old boy, all accompanied by onstage costume changes allowing transformation before the audience's eyes. And there is a cast size — one — that every theatrical bean counter cannot help but love.

Hewett's play, which is savvy rather than great, begins with the appearance of one Rhonda Russell, a suburban housewife with the titular red hair and the attitude therewith. She tells us that, one day not long ago, she received a call from her husband of some 17 years. He was calling her from his office to say he had moved out. There was, it seemed, another woman. Poor jilted Rhonda, we quickly find out, only briefly contemplates this distressing news and what it means for her life. Then she decides to take violent action.

Both the nature and the victim of that action are best left to a real-time theatrical experience, but the progression of events is not really Hewett's purpose. Rather, he's interested in airing varied interpretations of what happened, from different points of view (hence all of the characters, each of whom is connected in some different way to the act upon which the play pivots). And it's here that "The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead" has aspirations beyond that of a standard thriller, for it wants us to consider how most serious occurrences in life are so open to interpretation, it can be difficult to get to the actual truth.

Hewett has a point: I kept thinking of the George Zimmerman case in Florida and the difficulty of ascertaining what actually took place, never mind its semiological or political significance. No doubt someone will create a play about that: Moises Kaufman or Anna Deavere Smith are doubtless pondering a trip to Sanford, Fla.

"The Blonde" is a much frothier kind of play than something by Smith or Kaufman's Tectonic Theatre Project, although it does use the interview-style format, wherein it takes a while for us to figure out to whom the characters are speaking. Structurally, it also recalls Keith Huff's "A Steady Rain" and "The Detective's Wife," the latter of which was seen in this same behind-the-bookstore space.

The Writers' production is, in essence, a restaging of a 2008 production at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, as directed by Joseph Hanreddy (who ran the venerable Rep for years) and starring Deborah Staples, a leading light of Wisconsin theater. It is, for sure, a very skilled and carefully staged show. On Linda Buchanan's exceptionally clever set, Staples simply opens a different pair of doors during each transition and finds herself a separate little wardrobe, wherein she can age herself, switch wigs, change gender and the like.

The characters are all fully realized — quite amazingly so, actually — but they also are a curiously cold collection. One finds oneself admiring the physical transformation in the actress, and her emotional engagement, but not especially empathizing with the characters themselves, nor seeing the world from their oft-twisted point of view.

Part of the problem there is the writing. Part of the problem is the under-paced staging, which does not inject enough dramatic drive. But it's also a matter of scale.

When Hanreddy and Staples did this show together before, they did so in a theater seating 700 or so. At Writer's, the room holds no more than 50, and it takes a particular kind of skill to work with a discriminating audience just a few feet from your nose.

On opening night, Staples was pitching things just a tad too big and broad for that crucial moment of believing and Hanreddy's staging, with its careful sound cues, slow transitions and big visual moments, also seemed designed for a bigger theater.

It's a tough gig — when you're playing so many characters in a single play, you have to reveal and focus on their differences for this kind of play to work. But in a theater this size, you also have to concentrate just as hard on their similarities to each other and, more importantly, to the people watching from just across the room.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through July 29

Where: Writers' Theatre, 664 Vernon Ave., Glencoe

Running time: 2 hours, 15 mins.

Tickets: $45-65 at 847-242-6000 or http://www.writerstheatre.org.