Lady in Denmark
At the Goodman Theatre (Owen)
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—Linda Gehringer is taking on an enormous challenge in performing “Lady in Denmark” in its world premiere at the Goodman Theatre. She is the only performer on stage for 90 uninterrupted minutes, single-handedly dealing with outpourings of grief–feelings that mean much to her character but can make an outsider audience uncomfortable or even restless.
Fortunately, Gehringer brings the play off in a triumphant collaboration with playwright Dael Orlandersmith and director Chay Yew. What could have been a maudlin, even tiresome evening becomes an engaging and dramatic demonstration of acting at its most authentic.
The play’s title requires some explication. Helene is an elderly woman but she isn’t the lady of the title. Lady is American jazz singer Billie Holiday, known widely and fondly during her lifetime as Lady Day. Helene was born and grew up in Denmark but emigrated to the United States as a young woman and married a fellow Dane named Lars. They settled in Chicago, and it is the mature Helene who faces the audience in the living room of her Chicago home.
The play starts shortly after the death of Helene’s husband, a loss that devastates her. She shares her overwhelming grief and anger with the audience but much of the play is a nostalgic trip back to her youth in Denmark, especially an unexpected and joyous meeting with Holiday in Copenhagen. Helene’s father was a Holiday idolater and when the singer stopped in he city to perform during a European tour, Helene managed to obtain tickets for Holiday’s concert.
The concert blossomed into a back stage visit with the singer, followed by their invitation to dine with Holiday after the performance. So Helene and family fed the visitor and exchanged delightful small talk until Holiday left to continue her tour in Germany. There were mutual promises to communicate and even exchange visits between the family and the singer, which never came off because Holiday never answered their letters. Still, the memory of their few hours together remained fresh in Helene’s recollections decades after meeting happened (the play is set in 2014). “Lady in Denmark” gives us a poignant mini portrait of Holiday in her painful declining years, but she is basically a guest star in the narrative. “Lady in Denmark” is Helene’s story.
It all sounds cozy and maybe a bit bland. But Gehringer has the ability to connect with the viewers in an unforced but emotionally involving manner that makes the visit with Holiday an entertaining experience Helene humorously shares with the spectators. Gehringer is so submerged in the role that there is never a hint of acting. As she moves about her living room, frequently taking a sip of liquor or water, what is an extended monologue takes on a sense of reality that is never interrupted by a distracting technical flourish or a false line.
The Holiday episode is the centerpiece of the play, but the beginning and end are dominated by Helene’s overpowering sense of sorrow at her husband’s death, combined with memories of other friends and close relatives who have passed. Near the end of the play Helene bitterly wonders aloud how she can pray to a god who allows so many good people to suffer so unjustly.
There are narrative nuggets that do leaven Helene’s grief, like her account of how black jazz musicians visited Europe tour and remained as residents because they were treated so much better than they were in America. Or a grim portrait of the day in 1940 when German tanks rumbled down the streets of Copenhagen as the local residents watched in silent horror. And there are charming glimpses of family life in Denmark during the 1930’s and the immigrant experience in America.
There are no false happy endings to “Lady in Denmark.” Helene is as grief stricken and alone at the end as she was in the beginning. She has lost her husband and there can be no solace as she wanders, anguished and unbearably lonely, through their house. She will soldier on but she suggests that the end can’t come soon enough.
The play fits nicely within Andrew Boyce’s middle class living room set, illuminated by the atmospheric lightning design by Lee Fiskness and the sound and original music created by Mikhail Fiksel. Chay Yew’s directing is invisible but assured. The performance unfolds naturally and inevitably, reflecting the best kind of directing.
I left the theater pondering how often “Lady in Denmark” could have tipped into self pity or trivial nostalgia. But we watched and listened in rapt attention to what this woman tells us so personally about her life and her inner pain. The character melds seamlessly with Gehringer and it seems impossible that the actress is delivering a written script, a testimony to Orlandersmith’s skill at elevating Helene’s unsparing loss to such a believable personal level.
Gehringer performs this show as many as eight times a week, an exhausting physical and emotional feat. And yet we watch as though Helene was informally confiding in us just this one time. The only assistance she gets is a few blurry projections of Billie Holiday and some scratchy vinyl recordings of Holiday’s hits. The Lady of the title may be Holiday but the heroine of the evening is Helene, eloquently sharing her life with us for an intimate and believable hour and a half.
The show gets a rating ofstars.
“Lady in Denmark” runs through November 18 at the Goodman Owen Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street. Most performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 to $45. For information, visit GoodmanTheatre.org/Lady in Denmark, or call 312 443 3800.