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A lone actress does wonders with a dubious script

The multiple characters portrayed by Deborah Staples include floozy.

The multiple characters portrayed by Deborah Staples include a floozy.

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When: Through July 29

Where: Writers’ Theatre at Books on Vernon, 664 Vernon, Glencoe

Tickets: $45-65


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Updated: July 7, 2012 8:07AM

If Actors’ Equity were paying full attention, it might very well suggest that Deborah Staples receive the salary of seven performers rather than just one for her work in “The Blonde, The Brunette, and The Vengeful Redhead,” the Robert Hewett play now at the intimate bookstore venue of Glencoe’s Writers’ Theatre.

After all, Staples not only plays Rhonda, the redhead of the title — the shy, almost painfully passive and long-oppressed wife of Graham, a loutish guy who runs off after 17 years of marriage with barely a goodbye, leaving her dazed, devastated and a single mom. She also plays that pig of a husband as well as Lynette, their slutty neighbor and “best female friend” who pushes her into catastrophic action; the patrician lesbian doctor who runs a clinic in their town; a very troubled 4-year-old boy; a sexy, savvy Russian immigrant businesswoman, and an elderly neighbor. And she does so by not only changing costumes, wigs and makeup right before our eyes, but by completely transforming her vocal register and accents, her body movement and gestures, her facial expressions and metabolism, and more.

No question about it: Staples, a petite beauty — who has had a long association with Milwaukee Repertory but also many Chicago credits — is an actress of exceptional talent, and this show is a remarkable exercise that should be required viewing by anyone intrigued by the art of acting. But the overall quality (and believability) of Australian-bred writer Hewett’s play is more debatable. While its individual character studies can be sharp and revealing, it is far too contrived and gimmicky.

If there is an overarching theme at work here, it is the notion that every human action triggers a not always predictable yet often terrible chain reaction that can have consequences reaching far further than anyone might expect.

The story goes like this: Rhonda’s husband leaves her, and her best and only friend, Lynette (unhappily married in her own right, and as lonely as Rhonda, though in a different way), chides her into confronting “the blonde” she has fingered as “the other woman.” The subsequent melee at a shopping mall runs wholly amok, and leaves an innocent woman dead and Rhonda condemned to a long prison sentence. As it happens, the dead woman was a divorced mother who was the partner of Alix, a lesbian physician and social activist with whom she’d had a child by way of in-vitro fertilization. Coincidentally, Alix briefly finds herself treating Rhonda’s husband for anxiety and depression.

And there is more, with crucial help from designer Linda Buchanan’s marvel of a set — an ingenius box with a variety of distinctive “closets” that open up to reveal vanities and dressing stations perfectly in synch with the storytelling.

But a number of things in Hewett’s play stretch credibility including, most crucially, how Rhonda, a sensitive woman, would ever have been married such a moronic and vulgar pig of a loser as Graham in the first place. (Well, OK, such things happen.) In addition, director Joe Hanreddy has failed to tweak the script to fit an American audience, and you have to wonder whether this story is set in Australia or a Chicago suburb (despite a Chicago bar sign in one scene), with some jarring and awkward references and locutions along the way.

The script aside, however, Staples should be seen for the sheer pleasure and wonder that comes with watching an actor in radical transformation mode.

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