‘Linda’ at Steep: When the craggy face of time turns its glare on one-time woman of the year
“Linda” by Penelope Skinner, directed by Robin Witt at Steep Theatre, second extension through Sept. 15. ★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Despite a rather heavy application of angst, the true face of poignancy emerges in Penelope Skinner’s “Linda,” a dramatic screed at Steep Theatre on women, beauty and the cumulative unkindness of years. Kendra Thulin reels through the title role, one moment a confident and successful marketer of beauty products, the next moment a has-been who watches the world, fashion and relevance all pass by, leaving her bereft in life’s seventh age, sans everything.
There, I’ve told it all. But then, why not? You see it coming from the get-go when we meet Linda, star marketing maven for a cosmetics company. Right away, we grasp what she cannot, that her star is fading, that she still clings too firmly, even desperately, to the marketer of the year award she garnered long ago.
Linda was an ace back in the day. She came up with a high-powered ad campaign, promoting the company’s products to women of certain age: creams and powders to extend youth’s natural beauty, to beguile the years, to push back against the inexorable declination of aging.
But times have changed, and the efficacy of that pitch has waned. The new corporate thinking is that a wider market awaits in the next generation, in young women. Middle age is, well, passé. And as Linda also happens to have reached middle age, she may not be the one to lead the new campaign. A younger woman is brought in, a lovely creature who hardly needs makeup. Linda, erstwhile star, will report to this trim, sleek, energetic new arrival, Amy (Rochelle Therrien).
And that’s just the work front. At home, Linda has two daughters. Adolescent Bridget (the infectiously charming Caroline Phillips), following Mom’s example, wants to play Hamlet, not Ophelia. College age Alice (Destini Huston), brilliant one-time aspirant to a career in engineering, has spun out and crashed at home. Day and night, she shuffles about the house in soiled panda pajamas, sullen and uncommunicative. Huston paints a bleak portrait of a young woman shut down at the very start of her life.
The last of the tribe is Linda’s husband Neil (Peter Moore), who’s in the pop music biz. No great shakes as a man or a father, his idea of engaging the family is to sit at the kitchen table with his head in his laptop. But Linda has settled for him because he is decent and reliable. She can count on him.
Anyway, that’s how Linda sees Neil until the day things take a really bad turn at the office and she has to get out of there. So she goes home in mid-afternoon to find – a surprise (played by Lucy Carapetyan). Seems Linda’s husband has been made over with the illusory balm of rock stardom. He always wondered what that would be like and, hey, now he knows. He’s a star because this pretty thing wearing his T-shirt has so anointed him. In Neil’s humiliated explanation of his fantasy-fling, Moore delivers one of the show’s most touching moments.
By now feeling pretty much like a pinball, Linda caroms off the bumpers of home and office. But she gets it together well enough to make a final pitch to the company’s board of directors for the same old same old. That actually turns into a meltdown. Nothing her boss (Jim Poole) can say can assuage Linda’s suffocating sense of abandonment, of irreversible failure.
And then, poor girl, she commits a serious indiscretion that goes viral (which, of course, could never have happened back in Linda’s prime). Thing is, the same perp who turns Linda’s lapse into world news also was the cause of daughter Alice’s fall from grace and self-esteem, under similar circumstances. Which only shows that what goes around can go around again.
In the end, Linda has fallen so far that she bears a striking resemblance to Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” But in Linda’s case, there is no stranger to offer kindness. She has to find her own way out of this calamity, this wreck that only recently resembled a happy and fulfilling life, all by herself. And she does: committed once more, wind in her hair, breathing deeply of the world she has always loved.
Thulin’s performance is, in a word, grinding. It is all downhill for Linda, who keeps insisting in her own mind that she’s still ascending. There’s a mildly annoying realism in her repetitive harangue about her own stardom and the award she won and the tried-and-true marketing she still believes in. Thulin displays the rude bruises of a woman at the epicenter of a collapsed world. It is brutal stuff, credible and numbing and tragic.
The production has been extended through Sept. 15, with Cindy Marker taking over the title role Aug. 16. As Linda’s husband, Moore will be replaced temporarily by Alex Gillmor for performances Aug. 23-30, after which Moore will return to the role for the remainder of the run.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreInChicago.com