Chicago Shakespeare Theater (Yard)
The King’s Speech
At the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (Yard) by Dan Zeff
Chicago—No theater deliberately stages a bad play, but occasionally it happens. It certainly happened Thursday night at the American Theater Company with the world premiere of “T.”, a 95-minte one-acter that is as pointless as its minimalist title.
“T.” purports to deal with one of the most sensational scandals in American sports history. Tonya Harding was in competition with fellow American figure skater Nancy Kerrigan for a place on the American Olympic team that would compete in the 1994 winter games. On Jan. 6, 1994, Kerrigan was attacked after a practice session in Detroit. Harding’s ex husband, along with her bodyguard, hired a man to break Kerrigan’s leg to keep her off the ice.
Kerrigan received a leg bruise instead of the intended broken leg but she still had to withdraw from the national championship competition that preceded the Olympics. Harding won that event and qualified for the Olympics along with Kerrigan. Harding ultimately finished eighth and Kerrigan finished second in the games.
The uproar over the attack escalated into an international media frenzy. Eventually four men served prison sentences for their roles in the Kerrigan attack. Later in 1994, Harding was banned for life from the United States Figure Skating Association after she pleaded guilty to obstructing the prosecution following the Kerrigan assault.
Harding tried to skate professionally but her reputation was so toxic that few skaters and promoters wanted anything to do with her. She even tried a boxing career from 2002 to 2008, winning 4 fights and losing 3 and mostly was royally booed by the attendees.
The position of king requires strong leadership, and a monarch that stammers when addressing the people does not inspire confidence. Elizabeth, Bertie’s wife, visits Lionel Logue, an expatriate Australian speech therapist, desperately seeking some expert who can relieve her husband’s unyielding stammering. “The King’s Speech” tells the story of the initially on-again-off-again relationship between the new king and the Aussie, a relationship that grew into a mutual personal bond. The play ends with Bertie delivering a speech to his people, calling the British to unite against the threat of war with Germany. The speech was a personal triumph for the king and helped establish him as one of the most admired rulers in modern British history.
On the surface, “The King’s Speech” is a very English story that seemingly offers rather little to Americans and others not preoccupied with the life of the royal family.
The events took place years before the rise of social media made members of the family international pop celebrities. Today the lives of Prince William and Prince Harry are routinely covered on both the front pages and society columns of the press.
Seidler bases his story on the unlikely friendship between two men of contrasting personalities. The king’s ultimate triumph over his disability is a joint victory for the monarch and the Australian. Their road to success will rightly earn the interest and sympathy of audiences who might not find much connection with events that erupted early in the last century.
The play tells its stirring story through a series of short scenes, starting with Bertie’s wife visiting Logue in his London office in a last ditch attempt to find a cure for her husband’s stammer. Things don’t go smoothly at first. Elizabeth and Bertie demand certain prerogatives of their royal position. Logue says it’s his way or the highway, but the two come to an accommodation that allows the treatment to move forward.
The CST has imported English actors Harry Hadden-Paton and James Frain to take on the roles of Bertie and Logue, a perfect match. Hadden-Paton is just right as the aristocratic Bertie (the actor had a key role in the TV series Downton Abbey). He has a suave physical presence that plays off nicely against Frain’s edgier Logue. Bertie is very much the establishment figure and Logue the outsider from the colonies. How they come together in their common cause is the heart and chief pleasure of the play.
Several complementary characters superbly fill out the story’s private and political elements. Elizabeth Ledo is Myrtle, Frain’s blue collar wife, a woman who urgently wants to return to Australia where she isn’t an outsider in a stratified class system.
Rebecca Night’s Elizabeth gives her husband solid support during his times of frustration and even panic. We get insights on the political scene of the time from John Judd’s George V, Kevin Gudahl’s Winston Churchill, David Lively’s Stanley Baldwin, and Alan Mandell’s Archbishop of Canterbury. A special shout out goes to Jeff Parker as the irresponsible and self involved Duke of Wales. The brother is shamelessly infatuated with his American lover and a supporter of European fascism and Adolf Hitler (“No Jews or Communists in German” he remarks admiringly). European history may have taken a different and more somber path had he ascended to the throne. Tiffany Scott evokes the Wallis’s Simpson’s calculating and manipulating personality with virtually no dialogue.
Under director Michael Wilson’s fluent directing, the production moves quickly from scene to scene. The staging gets the full CST treatment, though Kevin Depinet’s scenic design may be a bit overpowering. The set relies on a geometric perspective embellished by sharp lighting effects and projections that I thought distracted from the intimacy of the story. But for audiences who like plenty of flash and sizzle in their physical production, the CST production will be an eye grabber. David C. Woolard designed the period and sometimes elaborate costumes. Howell Binkley designed the lighting and John Gromada the sound design (and original music).
“The King’s Speech” isn’t a great play but it is well written in its exploration of a very human situation. Local playgoers are certainly fortunate in their opportunity to watch Hadden-Paton and Frain crawl into the hearts and souls of the leading characters, elevating a story that could be parochial in its subject matter into universal exploration of perseverance and friendship. Even those who saw and enjoyed the movie version will find Seidler’s live version affecting and maybe even an upgrade.
The show gets a rating of of.
“The King’s Speech” runs through October 20 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater Yard Theater at Navy Pier. Performances are Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at 1 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $50 to $90. Call (312)-5954 5600 or visit www.chicagoskaes.com.