Talking Heads

Alan Bennett penned these three monologues for British television, where they aired in the late 1980s. But as evidenced in this Steppenwolf production of "Talking Heads," the exquisitely crafted material translates extremely well to the stage when placed in the right hands.

With:
Irene - Estelle Parsons Susan - Martha Lavey Graham - Alan Wilder

Alan Bennett penned these three monologues for British television, where they aired in the late 1980s. But as evidenced in this Steppenwolf production of “Talking Heads,” the exquisitely crafted material translates extremely well to the stage when placed in the right hands.

The subjects of Bennett’s monologues are three distinctly British provincial characters. Irene (Estelle Parsons) tells her story in “A Lady of Letters”: Unhappy about the general lowering of standards she sees everywhere, Irene occupies her otherwise empty days in a lonely house by writing letters of complaint about all manner of things. Irene’s letter-writing fetish lands her in jail, where, ironically, she discovers a happy alternative to her previous existence.

“Bed Among the Lentils” is a somewhat darker, wickedly biting tale about Susan (Martha Lavey), a sexually bored vicar’s wife and alcoholic who grows increasingly testy dealing with her husband’s petty behavior and the church’s small-minded congregation. But one evening on a mission to buy liquor, she happens upon a Pakistani grocer who takes her to bed among the lentils in his shop and offers her a love she has not been able to find.

The last of the monologues, “A Chip in the Sugar,” is a portrait of Graham (Alan Wilder), a repressed homosexual who dotes on his mother and refuses to deal with his own emotional problems. But when his mum looks as if she might fly the coop with her new boyfriend, Graham’s carefully controlled existence is dangerously threatened.

The writing throughout is rich in humor and sharply observed detail. But John Mahoney, making his directorial debut, has not been entirely successful in coaxing convincing perfs from his cast. Parsons does the best job of conveying the script’s quirky rhythms and illuminating Bennett’s complex subtext.

Lavey is good as well, though her portrayal would benefit from a bit more emotional nuance. Only Wilder, usually so adept at pulling off British characters, seems adrift here in a dull and colorless performance.

Set designer Linda Buchanan has filled the stage with a multitude of hanging windows that serve as a haunting backdrop for Bennett’s three playlets. Kevin Rigdon’s lighting is effectively subdued, while Nan Cibula-Jenkins’ costumes are appropriately frumpy.

Talking Heads

Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago; 500 seats; $32 top

Production: A Steppenwolf Theatre Co. presentation of a play in three acts by Alan Bennett. Directed by John Mahoney.

Creative: Sets, Linda Buchanan; lighting, Kevin Rigdon; costumes, Nan Cibula-Jenkins; sound, Richard Woodbury; dialect coach, Gillian Lane-Plescia; production stage manager, Laura Koch. Artistic director, Randall Arney. Opened July 17, 1994. Reviewed July 19. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast: Irene - Estelle Parsons Susan - Martha Lavey Graham - Alan Wilder

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