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‘Hostile Instruments’ not in synch

Jaclyn Hennell portrays Ann Landers “Unwilling Hostile Instruments: 100 Years Extraordinary Chicago Women.”

Jaclyn Hennell portrays Ann Landers in “Unwilling and Hostile Instruments: 100 Years of Extraordinary Chicago Women.”

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Somewhat recommended

When: Through Oct. 27

Where: Theatre Seven Chicago at the American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron

Tickets : $20


Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission

Updated: November 6, 2013 6:06AM

Theatre Seven of Chicago has a clear mission: To transform the way Chicagoans engage with their city by devising plays that deal with its people and history. Its world premiere production, “Unwitting and Hostile Instruments: 100 Years of Extraordinary Chicago Women,” created to commemorate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in Illinois, is true to form, taking a brief and often whimsical look at seven women of the past century who left unique marks.

The eight short plays by as many different writers are of varying quality. And the setting of the show is clever as the actors are seen rehearsing in the Uptown Hull House, a storied site that for decades served as a theater, but recently was sold to a condo developer. But the overall punch of the plays is derailed by Brian Golden’s “connective” material which gives us far too much of the actors’ earnest but sophomoric discussions on contemporary attitudes about civil rights.

Elaine Romero’s “These People” looks at Jane Addams (Marsha Harman), the visionary who used her family fortune to subsidize her pioneering social work and women’s suffrage movement advocacy. However “timely,” the play devotes too much time to her discreet lesbian relationship with her companion (played by Jessica London-Shields).

In “Under Threat of Lynching,” Carla Stillwell gives us a vivid profile of Ida B. Wells, the African-American journalist, suffragist and early civil rights leader, and actress Brittney Love Smith brings a formidable presence to her character.

Emily Schwartz tells us about the indomitable, barely known Cora Strayer (Tracey Kaplan), a sexy, gung-ho proto-feminist who, by 1890, was the proud owner-operator of a detective agency. And in “Murder, Grand and Gorgeous,” Seth Bockley takes an intriguing late-life look at Maurine Watkins, the Chicago reporter who penned the play “Chicago” in 1926, and decades later refused to give Bob Fosse the rights fearing a “trashy” modern musical.

The show’s second half picks up with Lauren Yee’s “Good Morning, Ann Landers,” the story of how the socially connected wife (played by Jaclyn Hennell) became a legendary advice columnist, all neatly animated by a letter-snapping chorus. And in Travis Williams’ “Circle Be Unbroken,” Echaka Agba, excellent throughout, plays Mavis Staples, “the voice of the civil rights movement.” Nick Ward’s play, set among women in a legal office in 1982, offers a fuzzy retro-take on Myra Bradwell (Adithi Chandrashekar), who, in 1869, attempted to become the first woman admitted to the Illinois bar. Ike Holter’s “Maverick” looks at attitudes towards activism in today’s society.

The overly long scripts hampers Elly Green’s zesty direction. But Kerith Parashak’s set, a great jumble of antiques, deftly captures layers of history.


Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic

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