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Theater Review:

Swing For The Fences Productions’ "LIFE AND LIMB" at Stage Left

BY LUCIA MAURO

Keith Reddin’s diabolical satire of America’s bloated post-war prosperity, "Life and Limb," slices through the bouncy wholesomeness of the Eisenhower era with a brittle comedic edge. But, by the wobbly second act, the playwright so forcefully propels his characters into a self-absorbed absurdist realm (most evident in the twisted ending) that the work’s cutting cynicism tears at the seams of relevance.

Nevertheless, Swing For The Fences Productions – a sharp new company embarking on its third theatrical offering – nimbly negotiates the pitfalls of Reddin’s precarious alternate universe. Director Kurt Naebig draws from his exacting ensemble the necessary earnestness and commitment required to illuminate "Life and Limb’s" grueling metaphors.

Set in New Jersey during the mid-1950s, "Life and Limb" traces the rocky but invincible relationship of protagonists Franklin Roosevelt Clagg and his wife Effie. The play moves from their early wide-eyed idealism to Franklin’s loss of his right arm in the Korean War to a freak accident that ultimately plunges the couple into hell.

Using 1950’s icons – including the 3-D movie craze and the advent of television – as his jumping off points, Reddin proceeds to dissect the darker underpinnings of a consumer society. His messages – particularly selling one’s soul to ruthless employers for a paltry slice of the American pie and falling victim to the faux innocence and mind-numbing propaganda of the movies – are blistering and powerful.

But the notion of rampant materialism – as well as the sham of America’s squeaky-clean values -- grow redundant and lose their pungency when Reddin transports these ideas to a supernatural dimension rife with ludicrous fantasies, especially a hell where sinners make potholders for all of eternity. While a fascinating creation, the ghoulish prosthetic-limb entrepreneur is written in such a sickly overblown fashion – as opposed to suggestively demonic –that the character loses his complex symbolic edge.

Naebig’s sincere – even endearing – production succeeds at making these zany and sometimes schizophrenic characters deeply human. Johnny Clark as Franklin demonstrates an astonishing range and ability to transform his character from happy-go-lucky army recruit to embittered war hero. He believably encompasses Franklin’s rapidly unraveling sense of humanity. Clark is ideally paired with Alexis Gladd as the chirpy but well-intentioned Effie – a character lost in a world where women are relegated to trivial formalities. Gladd, despite her character’s flighty ways, anchors the play with honesty.

Other engaging performances include, a measured yet explosive Daren Flam as the psychotic limb capitalist; Molly Glynn Hammond as Effie’s severe Romanian friend Doina; and Doug Pelletier in the dual role of Franklin’s suave Elvis-like friend and a persnickety satanic supervisor.

Joseph Fosco’s warped 1950’s music-based sound design and crisp vintage costumes by Dingofitt.com provide a stinging visual juxtaposition of nostalgia and neuroses.

Swing For The Fences Productions’ staging of "Life and Limb" runs through Sept. 8 at Stage Left Theater, 3408 N. Sheffield. Tickets: $15. Call 773-529-4558.

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