Goodman's 'Lady in Denmark' a perceptive portrait on love and loss
"Lady in Denmark" -- ★ ★ ★
We meet Helene, the sole character in Dael Orlandersmith's "Lady in Denmark," as she tidies up her comfortable, book-filled Chicago bungalow after her husband's 80th birthday party.
Lars, her husband, died three weeks earlier, but Helene (Linda Gehringer) hosted the party as planned. Now that friends and family have departed, she moves through the couple's Andersonville home, alone with her memories and Billie Holiday's music.
As afternoon fades to night and selections from the singer's recordings play in the background, Helene shares her story in Orlandersmith's gentle, perceptive meditation on life and loss.
The title refers to Lady Day, the nickname bestowed on Holiday by her friend and collaborator, the great jazz saxophonist Lester Young. The story was inspired by a reference the singer made in her biography, "Lady Sings the Blues," to a pair of enthusiastic fans -- a Danish physician and his 12-year-old daughter -- who Holiday met in Copenhagen on the eve of her 1954 European tour. The doctor, noting that Holiday was suffering from a cold, invited the singer to his home where he treated her symptoms and served her dinner with the family.
From that biographical snippet, Orlandersmith -- a skilled storyteller with a vivid writing style -- invents Helene, a woman from Denmark who spins a sweet and bitter tale about love and loss and the power of music to amplify our best moments and sustain us during our worst.
Helene recalls her parents' love of jazz, their progressive values and her own academic career, including stints at an art museum and the University of Chicago. She also revisits her past with Lars, the love of her life. They met at 13, married and built a life in Chicago's Scandinavian enclave of Andersonville until Lars' cancer diagnosis and death.
Orlandersmith describes Helene's grief in evocative, painstaking detail. Take, for instance, Helene's description of the ventilator that kept her husband alive with a sound she compares to German tanks rolling into Denmark, or the "the heavy silence" she depicts descending on her home at night.
Those are among the play's most powerful and moving moments. Indeed, Orlandersmith's depiction of this kind of loss is spot-on.
Gehringer plays Helene with warmth and honesty. In her straightforward, understated performance, Helene's grief remains close to the surface. Yet Gehringer also suggests Helene possesses strength she does not yet recognize -- and has not summoned for many years.
Directed by Chay Yew, who collaborated with Orlandersmith on 2012's "Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men" at Goodman, "Lady in Denmark" is nicely shaped.
Andrew Boyce's Danish modern-inspired living room -- subtly lit by Lee Fiskness -- is inviting. Orlandersmith plays up the local angle with references to The Green Mill, Rosehill Cemetery and Schaumburg, which inspired a gentle dig that got a big laugh during Monday's opening but might not land as well outside the Chicago area.
More problematic are the play's attempts to address such societal ills as racism, sexual abuse and addiction, all of which get rather cursory attention. Their inclusion detracts from the play's main theme and suggests that examining grief is somehow insufficient. It's not, especially paired with a crisis of faith, which Orlandersmith teases. Failing to fully explore that conflict was a missed opportunity.
But "Lady in Denmark" delivers in other ways, especially in its portrait of grief that is as universal as it is wrenching.
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Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday through Nov. 18. Also 7:30 p.m. Nov. 4 and 13.
Running time: About 90 minutes, no intermission
Parking: $22 with Goodman validation at the Government Self Park at Lake and Clark streets
Rating: For teens and older; includes mature language and references sexual assault, death and bigotry