Blending a combination of 1960’s southern charm, ever-unfolding personal secrets and more betrayal then half a dozen biblical tales, Windy City Playhouse’s latest, Southern Gothic, is a world premiere immersive theatrical production. Think the uptight white women from the Oscar nominated film, The Help, meeting the soap opera antics of the vintage, Peyton Place. The backhanded insults and unending shade flow as freely as the freshly poured Mint Juleps at the bar. Written by Leslie Liautaud and directed by David H. Bell, Southern Gothic inserts the audience in the midst of a 1960’s cocktail party in Ashford, Georgia where everything is immediately less than peachy. Unique to this show, the audience consists of a maximum of 28 patrons, so they can follow the action as it unfolds from room to room. Don’t worry if you don’t see everything, it’s purposely designed so you can’t. Scott Davis’ set design is literally a full house, where the action flows from the kitchen to the living room and dining room simultaneously. Once the audience surrenders to the unfolding action of this narrative style, just sit back and watch the sparks fly.
Gothic’s action centered around a quartet of couples with more secrets than a slew of spies. Originally bonded by attending college together, they are (happily) not just one-dimensional stereotype, stock southern characters. Hostess Ellie Coutier (Sarah Grant) and husband Beau (Michael McKeogh) small home plays center stage to all of the action. The tension of their union noticeable from the play’s first line. Using a 40th birthday party for Suzanne Wellington (the always brilliant Brianna Borger) as the inspiration to bring everyone together, Suzanne is such a self-absorbed energy vampire, a delight to see portrayed on stage much more than to befriend in actuality. Described as having a “PHD in OCD” Suzanne is partnered with husband, Jackson (Paul Fagen) a tightly wound lawyer with an array of secrets all his own.
Next to arrive, Lauren Lyon (Christine Mayland Perkins) a well-connected socialite with a not so hidden drinking problem and a politico husband, Charles (Brian McCaskill) whose ambitions are at a crossroads with his spouse’s. Rounding out the guest list, Tucker (Peter Ash) a dashing playboy, and coincidentally, Lauren’s ex, who arrives with beautiful journalist, Cassie Smith (Ariel Richardson) on his arm. Their illegal, interracial relationship starts both tongues wagging and jaws dropping inside the soirée. While the south is normally known for its politically conservative nature, behind the scenes here, the characters are wildly decadent, exploring infidelity, alcoholism, spousal abuse and an unplanned pregnancy in less than its two hour running time.
The superficial charms of Southern Gothic are immediately found in the elegant period accurate Elsa Hiltner costumes. From Suzanne’s bright reds (she is the center of attention after all) to Ellie’s peach Jackie Kennedy inspired cocktail dress and Lauren’s pale blue sheath, matching her character’s blue disposition, the kitten heels were clicking while the drama escalated. To add to the ambiance, signature cocktails are passed out to the audience members throughout the production as well.
Steamy, hot, and definitely designed for a regular theater going audience than just the casual novice, Southern Gothic flips traditional story telling on its ear. Less southern friend Gone with the Wind or Designing Women, more Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner meets Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Southern Gothic kept the momentum going and the audience entertained. Not a conventional tale, but a unique night out. I recommend attending with friends. Keep in mind there is a very limited bar selection in the lobby as well.
Southern Gothic is now playing at the Windy City Playhouse