Chicago’s Lookingglass Theater, this year’s undeniably deserving regional Tony winner, often produces the kind of highly theatrical work that feels as if it is written directly on the stage and not in the quiet confines of a writer’s study. Its newest show, “The Last Act of Lilka Kadison,” represents another ideal example, a modest, somewhat transparent memory play lifted to surprising heights of beauty by animated design work, an astoundingly sharp central performance and a keen sense of poetic storytelling.
Inspired by the work of the late NPR radio producer Johanna Cooper, whose oeuvre included two series of Jewish short stories, “The Last Act of Lilka Kadison” possesses three layers of narrative.
Its contemporary frame consists of the frail but feisty 87-year-old Lilith Fisher (Marilyn Dodds Frank) and her constant battles for basic control with her impatient Pakistani caregiver (Usman Ally).
Lilith is loathe to admit she’s being haunted — hounded might be a better word for it — by a ghost from her past, the charming young Ben Ari Adler (Chance Bone), who reminds Lilith of their brief collaboration 60 years earlier on a toy theater version of the tale of Solomon and Sheba (the third layer of storytelling), aborted by the Nazi invasion of Poland.
Set designers Jaqueline and Richard Penrod bring the memories to vivid, stylized life, with Lilith’s messy Los Angeles home transforming into a toy theater version of her past, when Ben Ari and the young Lilith — then a much more traditional but still feisty Lilka (Nora Fiffer) — improvised dialogue for their broadly funny puppet piece.
One can see the major events and revelations coming, which makes the brevity of the 80-minute show another key factor in its success. The authors — there are a bevy of them, including director David Kersnar — keep the storytelling tight, ultimately finding a poetic ending that provides the delightful little surprise of a master short story.
While all the performances are excellent, it’s Frank who brilliantly sets the tone of the whole endeavor. Unsentimental, sophisticated, and sharp, her Lilith delivers one-liners aplenty — “My greatest dream,” she tells her caregiver as he attempts to fill out a necessary form, “is to die with incomplete paperwork” — but she also builds up to a monologue (worth anthologizing) that captures in brilliant, concise fashion exactly what it’s like when a buried past suddenly invades the present.