Southern Gothic at the Windy City Playhouse is without a doubt a unique theater experience in Chicago right now. It is completely immersive without being interactive, enabling the audience members to satisfy their most voyeuristic yens. Set in June 1961 in Ashford, Georgia, a group of old friends have gathered for an evening of celebration, but the night quickly goes off the rails as dark secrets are revealed. It is a story of heartbreak, political intrigue, betrayal, redemption and love. And you, as the audience, are right in the thick of it all.
Flawlessly constructed on the stage is the full-sized home of Beau and Ellie Coutier, your hosts for the evening. Every detail has been thoroughly considered: light fixtures, kitchen appliances, food---are all straight out of 1960s Georgia. The audience each night is limited to 28 members. This is because the audience is invited into the home during the performance and encouraged to wander among the actors to eavesdrop on their conversations. As audience members arrive at the theater, they are greeted with an “invitation” to the birthday party. The invitation sets out several ground rules including: “There is seating available around the perimeter of each room, but we encourage you to move from room to room as you’d like.”
Entering through the back porch, the audience is given plenty of time to explore the home before Beau and Ellie appear to begin the last-minute party preparations before the arrival of the three other couples who will attend the party. Beau vacuums and Ellie talks on the telephone and if you are in their way…well, just don’t be in their way. From the moment the actors join the audience members on stage, they speak to each other and move around as if they are alone in the house…and as if there are not 28 strangers within feet of them. Each of the eight characters has his/her own compelling story, expertly told during the party. The actors do a remarkable job of disregarding the audience; not once do they make eye contact. Soft focus allows them to weave between the extra guests and maintain the story.
Small details make this a fun production. When Ellie greets her guests with a Tom Collins cocktail, the audience members are given a cocktail as well. When they toast the birthday girl with champagne, the audience does too. As Beau sets out hors d’oeuvres on the kitchen, dining room or back porch tables, the audience is free to partake in the appetizers.
Like a regular party, some of the evening’s conversation between the eight cast members takes place at one time in one room. However, most of the time, smaller more intimate conversations happen in different rooms. Three guests will be reminiscing on the back porch about old times, while a tryst between two lovers is happening in the kitchen and business partners are arguing in the living room. “There is no way to hear everything and that’s okay” we are reassured in the invitation.
The important plot points of Leslie Liautaud’s clever story are told several ways by different actors over the course of the evening. Several audience members in our showing opted to remain in their perimeter seats for the entire show. My buddy and I found ourselves splitting up, listening to different conversations in different rooms and then reconvening to discuss our findings. Each audience member will walk away with a different perspective of the evening’s events. There really is no wrong way to experience this show.
Southern Gothic has been extended through May 27. (Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park Rd)
All photos courtesy Carol Fox and Associates