When I find something particularly funny, my laughter often spills over into cursing under my breath. Milder jokes might earn an “oh my God,” while those that are particularly cutting—or just particularly hysterical—produce stronger language. Sitting in the audience of Two Mile Hollow, I was a veritable one-woman storm of f-bombs. At one point, I was in literal danger of falling out of my chair.
Playwright Leah Nanako Winkler’s writing falls squarely into the “it’s funny because it’s true” category, alongside heaping portions of good old-fashioned absurdity and digs at the status quo. The premise of Two Mile Hollow is brilliant in its simplicity: it tells the classic story of a dysfunctional rich white family—only none of the characters are played by white people. Winkler does not so much lampoon the genre as rip it to well-deserved shreds. From the first moments of the play, when the brilliant Deanna Myers, outfitted with a long blonde wig, stares contemplatively out at the ocean from a porch swing, the omnipresent “white people by the water” genre is recognizable in full force—and suddenly, this popular form seems utterly ridiculous.
As I watched, I saw familiar plays in every moment: there’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night. There’s August: Osage County. There’s Elemeno Pea. But what makes the show so striking is that it’s all of those plays at once. All the elements are there: a pill-popping mother, a long-held family secret, an incestuous crush, a dead patriarch whose presence nevertheless looms over the home, a nice family dinner that turns into a train wreck almost immediately. Winkler gleefully crashes these elements into one another, letting them explode violently into satire like pieces in Harry Potter’s wizard chess. The results are goddamn hysterical, amplified by a fantastic sense of comedic timing from the entire cast.
And then there’s Charlotte. The sole character of color, Charlotte is an outsider to the family, personal assistant to Christopher and thorn in the side of matriarch Blythe and daughter Mary. The only grounded character in the show, Charlotte prevents it from turning into a ninety-minute gimmick, which would have grown tiring, and allows the story to have some actual substance. The wealthy Donnelly family might be filled with the angst that only the fabulously privileged can afford, but here is a character who’s struggling to make something more of herself than her modest background dictates, who wants to represent the voices of people like her in the media. Charlotte stands as a reminder that there is an alternative to white-people-by-the-water plays, and it’s stories like hers. Stories that represent a broader cross-section of the population than just the most privileged among us, who’ve had more than enough stage time already, both literally and metaphorically.
As I watched Two Mile Hollow, one question kept striking me: why the hell do we put up with this same type of story again and again? The solution to this epidemic, I think, can be paraphrased from Charlotte’s statement at the climax of the play: we’ve got to get away from all these white people.
Location: The Den Theatre, 1333 N Milwaukee Ave. in Chicago
Dates: Friday, October 13 – Saturday, November 4, 2017
Curtain Times: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; Sundays at 3 pm.
Tickets: $10 – $20. Tickets are on sale now at firstfloortheater.com.
All photos by Juli Del Prete.