Although “Ladyhouse Blues” is not constructed around a basic conflict in the conventional sense, there is considerable potential in playwright Kevin O’Morrison’s 1979 drama about a working-class matriarch holding her four daughters close in 1919, just after World War I. Unfortunately, that potential goes unrealized, because director Anne McNaughton fails to establish any sense of dramatic tension, resulting in an uneven production that often leaves the spectator emotionally disengaged from the action.
The story is set in St. Louis, O’Morrison’s hometown, where a “ladyhouse” was a tenement populated solely by women and children, as their men were in the service. Liz (Kitty Swink) awaits the return of her son from the Navy and finds strength in having her four daughters with her before some of them scatter in different directions. She is caring for her oldest, Helen (Liza de Weerd), who is dying of tuberculosis and has been banished from her husband and child because she is infectious. Dot (Annie Matthews), a former model, is pregnant and visiting from her home in New York. She is constantly trying to improve herself in order to fit in with her husband’s tony family. Terry (Kaylee Bouwens) is still in high school, working as a waitress and heavily involved in the labor-union movement. Eylie (Tro Shaw), the youngest, is also in high school and waitressing alongside her sister. She intends to marry her prizefighter boyfriend and move to California.
While each of the daughters is distinct from the others, it is Liz who is the most complex, three-dimensional, and sympathetic. She is a proud, strong, Bible-reading woman with an earthy wisdom, but she is also flawed. She resists change, is bigoted, and considers the union movement a Communist plot.
Just as her character is the most completely drawn, so is Swink’s performance the most fully realized. Astonishingly, she is the only one to display the kind of genuine anguish one would expect when the family receives a gut-wrenching telegram. At that crucial moment there seems to be no change in the demeanor of the daughters, even though they react with varying degrees of emotion when related issues arise later. Swink also stirs the audience when Liz cries out to God that her burden has become heavier than anyone could bear.
Weerd is convincing as the consumptive Helen, but she tends to perform on one note. The same is true of Shaw, who gives no indication of Eylie’s inner life. Bouwens is cute and perky, but Terry’s passion for the cause of organized labor needs to emanate from a deeper place. Matthews’ Dot has an air that suggests there is a great deal going on under the surface, but the actor needs to expand her work to give us a better view of what that is.
“Ladyhouse Blues” offers a unique perspective on a largely unfamiliar slice of life that deserves to be explored with greater depth and nuance.
Presented by Andak Stage Company at NewPlace Studio Theatre, 10950 Peach Grove St., North Hollywood. Feb. 16–March 24. (866) 811-4111 or www.andak.org.
Critic’s Score: C+