Regional Reviews: St. Louis
In Unsuspecting Susan, like a miniature King Lear, a village gossip who feels in complete control of her own local domain loses everything. And, under the direction of Robert Neblett, Susan Chester even transforms into something non-human, tormented beyond her own everyday appearance. That metamorphosis comes in the performance of Donna Weinsting, in a strange twisting scene in an armchair where she slowly contorts intoI can't quite describe it (though that's clearly my job)perhaps a horrified, damned grotesque, plunging into Hell at 1,000 miles an hour.
Each comical performance of Ms. Weinsting's over the recent decades has seemed (to me) like a facet of her own personality. Then again, each tragic character she presents is horrifyingly new and unique, and I have no idea where those originatethough credit must also go to each of her directors, including Mr. Neblett. To re-phrase Tolstoy, who spoke of entire families: "all her happy characters are alike; but each of her unhappy characters is unhappy in its own way." She doesn't do more than one tragic role every six or seven years, by my count, so this may be your last best chance for a while to see how it's done.
Susan starts out as a perfectly normal woman, living alone in a big house in a little town. Gradually, we realize her entire life is devoted to arranging everyone she knows into some constellation of beings, usually inferior to her (or, at least, admiring of her). She is a landscape gardener who sports bright silky wraps for the first half of the story. Her son has recently moved away, to London, and found a charming roommate at a Coldplay concertbut Susan is constrained to point out that she does not think her own son is gay. And, though she doesn't literally say it out loud, he pretty obviously has enough to worry about already, on top of his crushing depression and erratic behavior.
I'm not going to unveil the whole story here but, like Job, Susan's life is suddenly swept clean of comforts and nearly all kindness. Her own tut-tutting superficiality, in constantly judging others, undoes her in a world where people now seem bent only upon misunderstanding one another. The whole planet comes to inveigh against her in this 80-minute show, turning every little gossipy moment from the first half into a vicious plague right back on her in the second.
The play came from London to Off-Broadway in 2005 with its original Susan, Celia Imrie. Here, with a nice elaborate set and a seven-fold silk characterization, we cross the full spectrum: from the micro-tribalism of a seemingly pleasant, backbiting mindset to the relentless, harrowing judgment that's finally called down.
Through September 30, 2017, at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive, St. Louis. which also plays host to other very distinguished young groups including Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble and ERA Theatre. For more information on Unsuspecting Susan visit www.inevitabletheatre.org.