As my plus one and I took our seats at the American Lives Theatre production of “Natural Affection” at IndyFringe Basile Theatre, my guest who is 30 years my junior, asked if the set of the drama which takes place in 1962 in a Chicago apartment, was period accurate. Considering that I was a high school sophomore that at the time, I assured him, that, it was indeed.
As the searing drama, by William Inge, artfully directed by American Lives Theatre Artistic Director Chris Saunders, unfolded, I came to realize that the play also effectively captured the tenor of the times that preceded the profound social, cultural and political revolution that was to follow.
“Natural Affection” is more than just a vintage melodrama, which failed to attract an audience and closed after just thirty-six performances when it premiered on Broadway in 1962. Inge, known as “The Playwright of the Midwest,’ was celebrated for his plays about small town life, so “Natural Affection” which dealt with what is now known as “dysfunctional” families. This particular Inge drama was clearly a departure from his usual oeuvre. And like all the works that ATL presents, this one has relevance to issues that exist today, and which simply reflect the human condition —thus making them timeless.
Inge’s dark. drama centers on single mother Sue Barker (Christine Zavakos) a successful Chicago buyer whose deeply troubled, illegitimate son Donnie (Zach Hoover), who has been away at reform school, arrives for a Christmas visit. Setting the scene for confrontation between Donnie and her resentful and jealous, slacker boyfriend Alex Oberheide (Bernie), the situation is ripe for conflict and potential violence. Not one to reveal plots or spoilers, I will only say that the sense of foreboding I felt throughout the tension-filled drama, was omnipresent.
American Lives Theatre continue to attract topflight actors who enjoy practicing their craft within the confines of challenging material and a professional climate the intrepid organization offers those serious about their craft. The cast of “Natural Affection” reflects that distinction through the convincing performances turned out by leads Zavakos, Hoover, Oberheid and Diana O’Halloran as Sue’s promiscuous neighbor, Claire Brinkman. Four other actors in minor roles fill out the ensemble.
Standing out was Ronn Johnston as Claire’s ineffectual, alcoholic husband Vince in a striking performance that is best described as colorful. Given that their characterizations were mostly believable, I would not say that they were completely miscast, but I felt that Hoover’s (who is referred to as a “big ape”} and Oberheid’s ages and physical appearances did not line up with that which is implied in the script
As far as production values are concerned, they were among the highest caliber seen thus far in an ALT show. On point were Steve Hollenbeck’s and Chyna Mayer’s 60s-era costumes and set, respectively, as was Tim Dick’s lighting and sound designer/composer Aiden Sturgeon’s effective score that contributed to the play’s often melancholic mood.
“Natural Affection” runs through Jan. 21. For tickets and information visit indyfringe.org