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'Kitchen' heats up with wartime drama
Irish home is both haven and prison as WWII horrors
rock family's foundation

by Hedy Weiss
Theater Critic, Chicago Sun-Times
published January 29, 2008

Far more than any meal (other than the liquid variety), it is emotional turmoil that is served up in "Dolly West's Kitchen," playwright Frank McGuinness' simultaneously black Irish and deeply Chekhovian drama, now in director Kimberly Senior's altogether sterling production at TimeLine Theatre. And it is in this kitchen -- the hub of activity in the West family's comfortable home in County Donegal -- that individual character and fate are set on "high simmer."

On the one hand, the West home is the natural gathering point of a decidedly unsettled family and the "outsiders" who find temporary refuge in their midst. Yet its creamy, comfortable confines are at once seductive and deceptive. The West house is relatively safe -- a bit of a haven in the neutral, recently liberated Republic of Ireland that remains relatively untouched as the horrors of World War II rain down on despised English neighbors and the rest of Europe. Yet it also is a prison of sorts, a place some of its occupants resent because it is emblematic of the fact that they don't quite have the guts to leave home and forge the lives they dream about.

Ahead of her time

The one person who did leave is Dolly West (that ever interesting and intelligent actress, Kat McDonnell), but she had to return. A Euro girl before her time, she was a free-thinking art history student when she headed off to Italy and ended up running a restaurant, coming home to Ireland only when Mussolini began getting in the way. Though not really suited for marriage, she still carries the flame for her world-traveling, periodically bisexual and Protestant lover Alec Redding (Cliff Chamberlain, aptly attractive and ambiguous), who just happens to show up again.

Dolly's beautiful sister Esther (the ever-watchable Danica Ivancevic) can only dream. As she feels trapped in her marriage to a decent, devoted man she does not love (Mark Richard, ideal), temptation flares with the arrival of a handsome American soldier, Jamie O'Brien (a most subtle Aaron Golden). Meanwhile, Jamie's fellow soldier Marco Delavicario (Joshua Rollins as the sassy-sad clown) is gay and "out," and forges a life-altering bond with the West sisters' angry, closeted brother (a fiery Niall McGinty), who initially resents the Americans.

As for Rima (Kathleen Ruhl), the elderly yet terrifically salty matriarch of the West family, she knows her children well and knows, too, that the trouble in her household stems partly from the wounds of her own husband's infidelity and temporary departure years before. Ruhl is phenomenal in a performance worth the price of a ticket all by itself.

Plucky, naive and daring

This being an Irish play, there also is a sassy young maid, and Anna Owens is a unique creation to which actress Sara Hoyer gives exactly the right mix of pluck, naivete and daring. Anna will not be trapped in the kitchen.

McGuinness is a writer of great energy, poetry and depth, and here he also captures the way war, even at a slight distance, can heighten emotions and trigger impulsive choices.

As always, Brian Sidney Bembridge's set is magic -- a raised, cutaway kitchen with buttermilk-washed walls, a well-aged wooden table, and a door that leads to a rocky garden and the great ocean beyond. Like all of "Dolly West's Kitchen," it is a richly self-contained world bursting with the possibility of "elsewhere."