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Saturday, February 24

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Theater Tue Feb 24 2015

Unlikely Romance Blossoms in Norma and the Maniac at The Orchard

Photo by Stephanie Vera.

It's May and December. Lake vs. ocean. Heavy metal or country. It's an unlikely romance between two losers who turn out to be winners in The Orchard Theatre's new play, Norma and the Maniac, produced in association with Redtwist Theatre.

The first full-length work by playwright Ray Nelson, the eight-scene, 80-minute, play is the story of how two lonely people meet by accident (it's not meet cute) and go off on a cross-country adventure that ends well, beyond all odds. The dialog is fast, witty and sometimes insightful -- and the two actors convince us they are enemies, then friends, then lovers.

Norma (Amy Gorelow) is a 40ish woman who has spent years taking care of her sick mother. While she sits in the hospital waiting room, the Maniac (Noor Hamdi) arrives, looking for a bathroom. He's 20-something, the frontman for a metal band named Chlamydia Christ and drinks whisky out of a water bottle. He sits down next to Norma, who isn't in the mood to make friends. The Maniac (he refers to himself in the third person) invites her to the "killer show happening tonight just down the street." He produces a noose, with which he plans to amaze his fans by emulating his musician idol, G.G. Allin. (The infamous Allin managed to OD offstage before he could kill himself on stage. The Maniac has scabs in his side from cutting himself with glass shards at a recent performance. It's a thing among some metal musicians.)

The following scene finds Norma sitting on her favorite bench on the lakefront, strumming a banjo, which she bought at a pawnshop. But the Maniac has followed her and he points out to her how beautiful the ocean is, in contrast to the lake, which is "not that big." A few scenes later, they are in Norma's car (figuratively) headed east to the ocean.

As they reach West Virginia, the Maniac notes their travel progress by stumbling over the first lines of the old song, "I've Been Everywhere" (first made popular by Hank Snow and later recorded by Johnny Cash, among others). It turns out that Norma knows the lyrics to the whole song, which is basically a long list of cities. The Maniac is impressed and tries to get her to sing it. When she refuses, he says, "Nobody in the history of the world knows the lyrics to that song. Except you, and that's fucking cool. You ought to be on stage screaming those lyrics in front of huge crowds."

After spending time in a motel room, they reach the ocean, and later visit the Maniac's parents because they have run out of money. Norma learns that the Maniac is really named Lewis, that he's a real person, and his parents love him. After many arguments, the pair head back to Chicago.

Norma and the Maniac is produced in association with Redtwist Theatre at their storefront space in Edgewater. Director and sound designer Alexander St. John keeps the two-actor play moving along nicely, as well as filling our ears with loud punk and heavy metal tunes before the show and between scenes.

It's a very minimalist production in terms of props, scene design and costuming in this tiny space. The car is a low table with benches on top. Norma wears jeans and sweaters. The Maniac wears a leather motorcycle jacket, and under it, a black t-shirt emblazoned with the artwork for Saint Vitus, a doom metal band. (The t-shirt looks way too new, by the way. Stage manager Autumn McGarr is advised to wash it a few dozen times and beat it up on a washboard. You know what a washboard is -- it's that percussion instrument used by zydeco bands.)

The press material for Norma and the Maniac includes playwright Nelson's comments on how he came to write the play. Earlier in his life, he was part of a sludge metal band in a small town in Michigan. He found himself immersed in the metal subculture and the community around it. "It was a place where we could all put on our most obscure band t-shirts and be a different person for a few hours." Job struggles, unpaid bills and relationship problems disappeared as soon as the amps were turned on. Nelson wanted to bring this small universe to a theater audience. He concludes, "The show always ends, and we all have to go home in the morning."

Norma and the Maniac by the Orchard Theatre will run at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr, through March 30. Performances are Saturday at 3pm and Sunday and Monday at 8pm. Tickets are $15 and $20 and can be bought online.

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lenya / February 24, 2015 1:42 PM

hey there, I'm the poster artist for the show and also contributed wardrobe and helped with song selection - the St. Vitus shirt was hand picked by me and is far from new - it belonged to my partner Wil Abtahi for at least a few years before they passed away last July, along with the leather jacket. Noor is wearing it as The Maniac in part as tribute to Wil's memory.

Nancy / February 24, 2015 4:15 PM

My apologies and my appreciation for the tribute to your partner. I know you wouldn't have wanted to put that in the playbill, but it is good to know. I really thought the shirt looked new.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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