An illuminating look at theater royalty
V Craig Heidenreich as Alfred Lunt and Lia D. Mortensen as Lynne Fontanne in "Ten Chimneys" at Northlight Theatre. | Photo by Michael Brosilow
Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie
Tuesdays at 1 p.m. (April 3 only) and 7:30 p.m. (April 3 only); Wednesdays: 1 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. (no show April 11); Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2:30 p.m. (no show April 8) and 7 p.m. (April 1 and 15 only), through April 15
Tickets: $25-$60. Young Adult tickets (25 and under) are $10
(847) 673-6300 or visit www.northlight.org
Salon Series panel discussion will be held on March 25 at 1 p.m. and will feature a historian from The Ten Chimneys Foundation; reservations required at (847) 679-9501, ext. 3555, or firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated: March 20, 2012 8:44PM
If you liked Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” you’ll love Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Ten Chimneys.” And if you’re familiar with the titular Wisconsin mansion (now a museum) where Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne held court during their Broadway heyday, you’re certainly apt to find Northlight’s latest a fascinating look at the off-stage intersection of human drama and scripted drama.
Whether this smart, well- acted, and quite funny piece will appeal to non-theater geeks who aren’t enthralled by the prospect of a dishy backstage look structured around Chekhov’s tragic comedy is debatable. What’s not in question is the sparkling wit instilled in Hatcher’s piece, or the archly marvelous work of the fine ensemble directed by B. J. Jones.
A bit of background:
Ten Chimneys was the Chateau Marmont of its day, a beautiful, luxurious residence where a glittering roster of famous guests routinely repaired. The Lunt-Fontanne power couple regularly hosted the likes of Noel Coward, Laurence Olivier, Helen Hayes, Carol Channing and Vivian Leigh at the Genesee Depot, Wis., estate.
The storied atmosphere among such close-knit
artists was an intoxicating mix of creativity and
passion, sex and smarts,
egos and eccentricities.
Today, Ten Chimneys is open to the public, its interior almost exactly as it was when the Lunt/Fontannes lived there, their belongings meticulously preserved right down to the toiletries in the boudoir.
Hatcher opens Ten Chimneys by putting a microscope on a single, fortuitous weekend at the home, ushering the audience behind the scenes where Lunt, Fontanne, Sydney Greenstreet and a young Uta Hagen are in rehearsal for a late 1930s staging of “The Seagull.” The quartet of actors is joined by Lunt’s slavishly adoring, overbearing mother Hattie (Linda Kimbrough), his sister Louise (Janet Ulrich Brooks), and Louise’s taciturn (and somewhat underwritten) husband Carl (Lance Baker).
From those seven characters, Hatcher spins a story that could keep both Freudian and Chekhovian scholars busy for weeks. In making “The Seagull” — the fraught story of actors gathered at a summer estate — the framework for the action in “Ten Chimneys,” Hatcher manages to be clever without belaboring the obvious (and sometimes not-so obvious) between the play-within-the-play.
Jones elicits wonderful performances from his principals, with V Craig Heidenreich’s Lunt and Lia D. Mortensen’s arch, sophisticated Fontanne grounding the ensemble. Mortensen, in particular, is marvelous, carrying herself with the cool confidence of a smart woman who knows she’s at the top of her game and the undercurrent of neediness that’s so often present in performers.
As Uta, Sara Griffin is a complex mix of eager innocence and sharp savvy — she’s an ingénue to be sure, but she’s an ingénue with more than enough ambition and brains to propel her from doe-eyed newcomer to life-long luminary.
As Lunt’s mother
Hattie, Kimbrough does work to absolutely relish, swanning about as an imperious, devoted mother who simply does not allow the chore-like aspects of reality (financial matters chief among them) interfere with her glorious sense of entitlement.
Will “Ten Chimneys” appeal to those who aren’t interested in Chekhov or enthralled by Hatcher’s inside-the-actors’-studio microscope on the rehearsal process ?
Maybe not as much as it will to those who know “The Seagull” inside and out. But you need neither a background in Russian drama or Broadway history to appreciate the passion, humor, and tantalizing intellect that propel “Ten Chimneys.” Those things are universal, and Northlight has done a fine job illuminating them.