Unplanned pregnancy yields ghastly consequences in Louisa Hill’s Lord Of The Underworld’s Home For Unwed Mothers, a Skylight Theatre Company World Premiere whose cast, director, and production design succeed as often as not in overcoming the memory play’s abrupt second-act tonal shift, some cardboard supporting characters, and too much narration throughout.
An awkward reunion between 41-year-old Dee (Corryn Cummins) and 25-year-old Corrie (Michaela Slezak), the daughter she was forced to give up for adoption a quarter-century earlier, quickly flashes back to the year 1964 and the events leading up to a mother and daughter’s involuntary separation.
Like many a teenage girl before her, young Dee finds herself more than willing to be seduced away from her straight-arrow childhood sweetheart Billy (Adrian Gonzalez) by bad boy Eddie (Gonzalez again in the second of his six Male Chorus roles), and though a year of intimate relations with Billy have yielded only rationalized pleasure and Catholic guilt, unprotected sex with Eddie leaves Dee with a bun in the oven, an unwilling baby daddy, and ‘50s-style parents (Gonzales and Amy Harmon in the first of her ten cameos) whose solution is to ship poor Dee off to a Home For Unwed Mothers despite their daughter’s “Yes, I will!” to a still besotted Billy.
Playwright Hill deserves props for taking a strikingly surreal, refreshingly unsoapy approach to this tale, if not “as old as time,” at least as old as Stella Dallas, Imitation Of Life, and more than one Original Lifetime Movie, and director Tony Abatemarco’s decision to have composer Marylin Winkle provide stark live cello underscoring throughout adds to the production’s impact.
Also, despite too much time spent on Dee’s telling her story rather than simply letting it play out, Act One occasionally succeeds at being the “deadpan comedy” specified in Hall’s script, and if supporting roles like our heroine’s uptight parents and the unwed mothers’ home counselor come across more comedic caricatures than three-dimensional characters, at least they and Cummins’ sweetly forlorn, ever resilient Dee and the two boys she loves (subtly but clearly distinguished by handsome hunk Gonzalez) provide some refreshingly light moments amidst the darkness.
Unfortunately for both Dee and the audience, the living hell experienced by motherless daughter Corrie rivals the worst Charles Dickens ever conceived, turning a child who might just as easily have been raised by loving adoptive parents into the victim of one despicable couple after another. (Her first adoptive mother sends her back, Daddy number two sexually abuses her, and don’t get me started on her three foster moms.)
No wonder then that Corrie turns into a ferocious, foul-mouthed, gut-punching beast of a teen whose justified anger is made even more strident when high-decibel heavy metal overpowers Winkle’s cello in Lord Of The Underworld’s Home For Unwed Mothers’ unremittingly grim second act.
Not that there isn’t much to admire in the production Hill’s play has been given at the Skylight.
Cummins’ Dee is both quirky and compelling, Slezak gives us glimpses of the pain beneath Corrie’s rage, and Gonzalez and Harmon serve up a dozen and a half distinct, occasionally delicious cameos, with special snaps to Gonzalez’s Metallica-ready Henry and Harmon’s Brooklyn-snappy Social Worker and her gender-bending, head-banging Butcher. (A nice touch is having the mostly onstage chorus change outfits in plain view with a little help from each other.)
The production looks terrific thanks to Cindy Lin’s appropriately surreal scenic design, lighting designer Jeff McLaughlin’s stunning use of color, Sarah Figoten Wilson’s character-distinguishing ‘60s/‘80s costumes, and Christopher Moscatiello’s mood-setting, often electrifying sound design complemented throughout by Winkle’s evocative live underscoring.
Dani Larson, Katelyn Moore, Kurt Mason Peterson, and Mary Alexandra Stiefvater make up the alternate cast. Kim Kiyeon is alternate cellist.
Lord Of The Underworld’s Home For Unwed Mothers is produced by Gary Grossman. Christopher Hoffman is production stage manager and Colin Grossman is stage manager. Jonathan Muñoz-Proulx is associate director and Aby Izquierdo is assistant to the director.
Alternately powerful and off-putting, Hill’s play could benefit from a trim (and a less unwieldy title). Though not particularly what I’d call “enjoyable,” it has its absorbing moments and flashes of hope. In the end, however, Lord Of The Underworld’s Home For Unwed Mothers left me less overjoyed than underwhelmed.
Skylight Theatre, 1816 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles. Through May 14. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30. Sundays at 3:00. Reservations: 213 761-7061
April 14, 2017
Photos: Ed Krieger