Karen Janes Woditsch and Craig Spidle star in "To Master the Art" at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place. | PHOTO BY GIORGIO VENTOLA
‘TO MASTER THE ART’
When: Through Oct. 20
Where: Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut
Tickets : $25-$75
Info: (800) 775-2000;
Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission
Updated: September 18, 2013 8:47PM
By the time the world met Julia Child, the larger-than-life woman who magically lit up the small screen, she had been stewing in her own juices for a good five decades.
“To Master the Art,” the utterly delicious play by William Brown and Doug Frew now at the Broadway Playhouse (a remount of the original 2010 TimeLine Theatre hit), cooks up Child’s evolution during the crucial decade she spent in Paris beginning in 1948. This was when she first discovered French cuisine, enrolled at the Cordon Bleu, and joined forces with Simone Beck (“Simca”) to write “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” the massive tome that became a bestseller.
Brown and Frew have penned a gorgeous character study, with Brown bringing his usual flawless touch to the direction. And Karen Janes Woditsch — in a bravura performance that not only easily out-whisks Meryl Streep’s film version, but magically embodies Child in the most subtle and variable ways — is wondrous. You cannot help but root for her every step of the way.
The play opens with Child’s epiphany-like meal at a French restaurant, by which time this awkward but determined woman has already made it through posh California society and Smith College, served in the wartime OSS (the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA) and met Paul Child (Craig Spidle, who brings a fierce midlife angst to the role), whom she adored.
Paul, who had earlier lived in Paris as an artist, returned there when he joined the United States Foreign Service. Julia, like a “poisson out of water,” with no knowledge of French, desperately needed to find something to consume her enormous energy and soon became obsessed with cooking. The rest is history.
The show’s first act is as light and delicious as a souffle as Child forges her way through the elitist Cordon Bleu alongside young soldiers on the G.I. Bill, and meets Simca (Jeannie Affelder in a delectable, ideally French-accented turn), the proper French woman with whom she bonds. The second act grows far darker as the communist “witchhunt” of the McCarthy era takes hold, Paul is subjected to a stormy inquest, and the couple’s expat friend (played with ferocity by Heidi Kettenring) is ruined.
The cast (on Keith Pitts’ essence-of-Paris set) is uniformly superb with Terry Hamilton as Child’s fervent patriot dad; Sam Ashdown, Brian Plocharczyck and Ian Paul Custer as the spirited G.I. Bill cooks; Janet Ulrich Brooks and Juliet Hart as the cookbook’s champions.
“To Master the Art” is the opening salvo of the new Chicago Commercial Collective, designed to turn non-profit theater hits into commercial productions. A prize recipe on all counts.