NICE GIRL, by Melissa Ross, currently in production at the Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark, Chicago through March 11, 2018, is a story about a “nice” but deeply unhappy not-so-young woman, who blames her mother for all the frustrations of her life. Through a series of encounters, she ultimately comes to see that the choices she has made were hers alone. She also learns that other people’s lives are not perfect, either. Tightly directed by Lauren Shouse, the play stars Lynne Baker, as Francine, the mother you can’t bear to come home to; Lucy Carapetyan as the aging innocent “nice girl” Josephine; Stella Martin, as incandescent gal-pal Sherry; and Benjamin Sprunger as the hapless butcher/lover, Donny.
Josephine (Jo) Rosen, an aging virgin who lives with her perennially at-home and needy hypochondriac mother, Francine, is asked, “You ever think maybe you were supposed to be somebody else, and … you got sidetracked?” That’s a question we could all answer in the affirmative, if we live long enough and are honest. At one point, Jo responds with, “This isn’t the life I thought I’d be living,” she tells Francine, “I’m a spinster who lives at home with her mother! I had a scholarship to Radcliffe and I’m a secretary”.
The setting is suburban Massachusetts in 1984. Jo, winningly portrayed by Carpetyan with more than a touch of daughterly malice, is fed to the teeth at reaching her late 30s and still living with the maddening widowed Francine, whose idea of special entertaining is putting out “the good candy.”
Jo begins to live when she connects with 2 people: she starts hanging out with a co-worker, Sherry- given a fascinating portrayal by Martin- and she begins a flirtation with Danny, a former classmate, now a butcher. Sherry pushes Jo to change her life, “We don’t haveta be just secretaries anymore and take this bullshit. It’s a different world for us than it was for our mothers, you know? We can be anything we want. Whadya wanna be Jo?” Jo hasn’t a clue. From this point on, the plot becomes complicated, as the characters move into and out of each other’s lives.
All 3 women- and Danny, too- are made to wise up quickly. Although the issues treated her are familiar ones, these characters will keep you thinking, laughing and rooting for them. Replete with wit and empathy, portrayed by a quartet of actors both understandable and loveable, this is a first-rate late coming-of-age saga. What is more impressive, all 4 characters get equal time to open up, to express their problems, confusion, insecurity, remorse.
The piece is beautifully constructed; every word counts. The direction feels effortless, but is in fact tautly controlled. Each personality is finely drawn and well portrayed. In particular, the mother/daughter fights were realistic gems. The set itself took me back to- shudder- my own mother’s kitchen. As I watched the knowing light rise and die in each actor’s face, as they dug the knives of their wit into each other, I felt I knew these people. The script is replete with a multitude of small details that work together to create a fully blown picture of a time, a place, and 4 lives.
The comedy/drama is brought to life by actors who reach inside themselves to mine a rich vein of empathy for the roles they portray and a director who keeps it simple yet holds nothing back. When Sherry tells Danny “I’ll send dead animals to your wife”, we can feel her anger stoked by pain, just as earlier we watched her friendship for Jo blossom; and she couldn’t possibly be sexier in an off the wall way. When Jo says, “I’m dying a little every day”, we can actually see her shrinking down into herself. Danny may be the most complicated character of all; he is genuinely mixed-up, as well as aimless, handsome and charming.
With subtle and witty costumes by Noël Huntzinger and a thoroughly believable set by Lauren Nigri, spoken with fabulous Massachusetts accents thanks to dialect specialist Jason K. Martin, this play will take you on an emotional journey, and make you laugh along the way.
For information and tickets to all the fine performances at the Raven Theatre, go to www.raventheatre.com
All photos by Michael Brosilow