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'Ladyhouse Blues' Showcases The Complicated Lives Of Women During World War I

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Kevin O'Morrison's Ladyhouse Blues premiered in the late '70s, and it's reported that for two years it was one of the most produced plays in the country. Aside from its theatrical quality, the reason for this is that the show provides five solid roles for women (there are no men in the show), a relative rarity in modern American theatre. The new production by Andak Stage Company revels in this fact, presenting a moving character study and a showcase for some terrific acting.

In 1919 St. Louis, Liz Madden (Kitty Swink) is the matriarch of her household of four daughters, with her husband deceased and her son Ben having been off fighting in WWI. Pregnant Dot (Annie Matthews) is visiting from her home in New York, while Terry (Kaylee Bouwens) is becoming involved in union politics. Eylie (Tro Shaw) is trying to figure out how to tell her mother that she's moving away to California with her fiancé, while Helen (Liza de Weerd) struggles with tuberculosis. Liz struggles to keep her family together, knowing that changes will soon separate them.

I've seen Kitty Swink in several Antaeus productions over the years, and, while she's always good, this performance is easily the best and most impressive I've seen her give. She's both fierce and tender as Liz, an End of Days shouter, a woman of limited education who nonetheless loves and does her best for her brood in difficult circumstances. She convinces in her one-sided prayers to God, tricky scenes which in lesser hands could seem silly, and she reveals a strong and effective singing voice as well.

De Weerd excels as the febrile Helen, a woman made short-tempered and somewhat hysterical by her illness, and she makes the character's struggle to remain a decent person and not be overwhelmed by bitterness dramatically compelling. Shaw brings a pert insouciance to Eylie in a charming performance, and Bouwens delivers the proper mixture of optimism and inner steel to early feminist Terry. Matthews is wry and believable as Dot, the most worldly of the sisters.

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Director Anne McNaughton gets fine work from her cast, and keeps the pacing swift enough that the show flies by. O'Morrison's play works on multiple levels other than just a strong story for a quintet of actresses, from a study of how women in wartime cope without men to an example of how at that time families were moving from the country to the cities and what was lost and gained from this transition. He also provides excellent character details, from the mother who believes all foreign languages are sinful codes and who won't lock the house in case the Lord happens to come by.

"Ladyhouse Blues" plays through March 24 at the NewPlace Studio Theatre. Tickets are available online.