Annie Enneking Gives Riveting Performance in Moving “Lullaby” at the Ritz

John TownsendLavender Magazine

January 26, 2016


Closure is one of the biggest issues all of us must contend with as human beings. When we don’t find closure regarding traumatic events — which we all have — the ramifications spill over and bleed into our life stream. Playwright Michael Elyanow has ingeniously structured the problem of closure on three tracks in his extraordinary new play with music, Lullaby, now in its splendid world premiere at the Ritz Theatre. It is part of Theater Latte Da’s Next 20/20 new works program and ranks among the theater’s best productions in recent years.

The three tracks portrayed are a young straight widowed mother who is (1) haunted by the suicide of her guitar-playing husband and (2) by her unwillingness/incapacity to forgive her alcoholic mother. Then there’s an older lesbian musician and bar owner devastated by emotional wounds of her ex.

The former, Cassie (Adelin Phelps), desperately wants to learn to play the guitar so she can bring harmonious music into her baby’s life now that the father is gone. Today’s Trey Parker mentality will surely find much to mock about this, but Elyanow is clearly someone deeply in touch with real, fundamental feelings. On the other hand, Cassie’s unforgiving resentment toward her neglectful mother has warped her connection to reality. Phelps also lives into these layers beautifully. I’ve been watching Phelps over the fast two years and have been impressed with her work; this is the best work of hers that I’ve seen yet.

Cassie seeks out a guitar tutor at a lesbian bar, which owner-performer Thea (Annie Enneking) proudly proclaims as a “dyke” zone, despite the politically correct word-policing of our time. The defensive misunderstandings between the two women when they first meet are charmingly funny and point to the patience queer and straight people both need to navigate the early phases of platonic relations.

In recent years, Enneking has distinguished herself as a topnotch stage combat director, but for those who have known the local theater scene, she is a brilliant veteran actress. Though I can’t say I have seen all her performances since she was named Lavender’s Best Actress for Frank Theatre’s production of Mother Courage 10 years ago, this is clearly memorable as well. Enneking brings a grit and ravaged beauty to Thea that you simply cannot take your eyes off. You sense the woman’s emotional wreckage and her struggle to be generous enough to forgive at the same time. When the younger Cassie misinterprets Thea’s struggle on her (Cassie’s) own mistaken terms, sparks fly in a way that is utterly visceral.

Though very much a women’s play, Elyanow has also written two fine male roles for Lullaby which are played to perfection at the Ritz. David Darrow is winningly mercurial as a phantom visage of Cassie’s dead husband whose neglect of their infant was understandably more than she could bear. It’s very easy to come down against a parent who does wrong by their kid, but Darrow embodies a young man who needed help in this difficult world we live in and in which too little is done to help struggling young people. As Bertolt Brecht once wrote: “man needs help from every creature born.”

James Eckhouse gives a powerfully endearing performance as Gabriel, Cassie’s deeply compassionate father, a man who refuses to give up on his daughter and a wife in perpetual rehab, who has drained him of resources and precious energy. He stands by the women in his life. Gabriel raises some profound questions about our duty to stand by or not, those we love, in the face of seemingly irrevocable dysfunction. I see him as an emotional hero. It is thrilling to see Eckhouse back on a Minneapolis stage. He was in Garland Wright’s iconic Guthrie production of Candide in the early 1980s and he has evolved well.

Elyanow’s husband, Jeremy Cohen, has movingly directed Lullaby with emotional intricacy, vulnerability, and classic style loosely reminiscent Neil Simon. Matched with Geoffrey Curley’s set, you get the feeling you have entered into the actual lived-in world of the characters. As if you could lounge on the sofa beside them. The songs by Chris Dallman, Garrison Starr, Curt Schneider, and Elyanow elicit a soulfulness that tugs at the heart. Not to be missed.

Lullaby Through Feb. 7 Ritz Theatre, 345 15th Ave. NE, Minneapolis 612-339-3003

LULLABY: Regional Review

Arthur DormanTalkin' Broadway

January 22, 2016

Lullaby, billed as a play with music, is a brand new work written by Michael Elyanow and developed by Theater Latté Da as part of their Next 20/20 initiative. Lullaby had a developmental staging last season and was swiftly shepherded to its current full production at the Ritz Theater. The result: Lullaby is a deeply moving work. Its characters feel like real people with relationships and emotions that ring true. It is directed seamlessly by Jeremy B. Cohen who draws terrific performances from his four actors. On the down side, the tale Elyanow tells strains credibility at times. Things occur that seem implausible, in spite of authentic characters and feelings.

At the center of Lullaby is Cassie, a young mother who has been unable to sleep since her husband Craig died six months before. With their two-year-old son, she has moved back to her childhood home near Boston. Craig appears as a character seen and heard only by Cassie, who knows her visions of him are illusions, yet cannot keep herself from engaging with them. Cassie's father Gabriel is a super-supportive dad and grandpa, while working as a professor of film studies and tending to Cassie's mom, an alcoholic in residential treatment. The fourth character is Thea, a past-her-peak musician and co-owner of a club she describes as "a dyke bar," though she has been told the term is politically incorrect. Thea is recovering from a recent break up with her partner of 18 years.

Craig was a musician who, in life, serenaded his infant son with lullabies. In Cassie's visions he still does. She believes that if she learns to play guitar she will bring music back to their son, and in turn Craig's haunting presence will cease and she will be able to sleep. Cassie wanders into Thea's bar for a drink and, after an initial period of hostility, Thea becomes both Cassie's guitar teacher and best friend.

The plot points in the last sentence feel highly unlikely, even illogical. In their first meeting, Cassie is so obtuse and Thea so curt that it is hard to imagine either one giving the other a second thought. Cassie knows she is in a lesbian bar, yet is surprised that Thea interprets her entreaties as a come-on. Once Cassie makes her intentions clear, Thea insists that she is not a teacher, yet Cassie implores Thea to teach her because her previous instructors were men who couldn't keep their hands off her. Why had Cassie not tried to find a qualified female guitar teacher? Surely they exist in the Boston area. And why do neither Cassie nor Thea have any other friends? Yes, they both have been through severe traumas, but those don't have to have left them bereft of any other friends or sources of support.

These are ways in which the plot feels contrived, moving forward because it was written to, not because that's how lives are lived. Yet, the script's sensitivity to these characters' feelings and the strong performances manage to overcome the gap in credibility and generate concern for Cassie, and also Thea. Lullaby goes on to reveal the personal crisis that precipitated Thea's break-up, painful particulars of Craig's death, and the long-standing conflict between Cassie and her dysfunctional mother, with Gabriel trying to broker an accord between them. That's a lot of angst to wade through in one ninety-minute show, and it is to the playwright's credit that we maintain interest in Cassie, Thea, and Gabriel and hope for their happiness. It helps that all three are likeable characters, especially as played, respectively, by Adelin Phelps, Annie Enneking and James Eckhouse.

Phelps portrays Cassie as a young woman who has struggled to be in control of her life in response to the dysfunction brought on by her mother's alcoholism and Craig's illness. She has spiraled into insomnia, desperate to avoid the fall that lies just ahead. Phelps makes Cassie bright and perky, but also tired and frightened as she tries to generate enough go-power to stave off the forces of loss and guilt. It is a complex performance that is one of the main reasons we believe in Lullaby even when we don't believe its story.

Another reason we believe in Lullaby is Annie Enneking's equally striking performance as Thea. She presents Thea as thick-skinned and self-sufficient, slowly peeling away her outer skin to reveal softness and compassion within. She is a survivor who wants more than to just survive. She is also terrifically funny, and lands the numerous laugh-lines playwright Elyanow has provided. Her throaty, weary sounding voice is perfect for the songs Thea sings as she strives to keep music at the center of her turned-over life.

James Eckhouse is likeable and believable as Gabriel, a gentle and nurturing academic, faithful, if perhaps a bit too enabling, to his manipulating wife and drawing forth all the support he can muster for his beleaguered daughter. Because we believe so much in his goodness, his eruption when finally squeezed too tightly between his wife and daughter is also palpable. David Darrow, a frequent member of Theater Latté Da casts, plays Craig, who is beyond suffering, and his relaxed and easy disposition as he haunts Cassie with his presence only adds to her pain, especially in contrast to hardships he suffered (seen in a flashback) in life.

Lullaby is staged on a wonderfully wrought set designed by Geoffrey Curly that uses the full width of the Ritz Theater's stage, with the wood-grained, bookish foyer and living room of Cassie's childhood home on one side, and Thea's battered and rough-edged bar on the other. Paul Whitaker's lighting design guides us smoothly between the playing areas, and illuminates the shifts in Cassie's focus between searching inwardly and reaching outward.

As for the music, we hear songs sung by Thea on stage at her bar or in the course of Cassie's guitar lessons, and by Craig as he coaxes Cassie to remember music they shared together, and with their son. The songs, contributed by Garrison Starr, Chris Dallman, Curt Schneider, and Michael Elyanow, are in a country-folk vein. They do not reveal character or advance the plot, but are part of the atmosphere, adding to the longing for release at the heart of the play. None of the songs are truly memorable, though "Heart Collector" can be understood as Thea's own warning to protect her heart from future hurts, and "Gasoline" catches the drunken spirit of feeling good about feeling bad.

Lullaby contains a lot of very good work—strong direction, beautiful stage design, and excellent performances—that in combination stir up deep feelings. The emotional journey is depicted with enough conviction to make the outcome truly gratifying. And yet ... It would be even better if all of this were built upon a story that rang true.

Lullaby is worth seeing for all that it offers, especially in this very fine production. If future iterations can knit together the gaps in its plot, this emotionally rewarding work has the potential to become a truly masterful play.

Lullaby continues through February 7, 2016, at the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $30.00 - $35.00. For tickets call 612-339-3303 or go to theaterLatté

Written by: Michael Elyanow; Music and Lyrics: Garrison Starr, Chris Dallman, Curt Schneider and Michael Elyanow; Director: Jeremy B. Cohen; Assistant Director: Benjamin French; Music Director/Sound Engineer: Peter Morrow; Set Design: Geoffrey Curly; Lighting Design: Paul Whitaker; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Properties Mistress: Amy J. Reddy; Technical Director: Stein Rosburg; Production Manager: Dylan Wright; Stage Manager: Lisa M. Smith.

Cast: David Darrow (Craig), James Eckhouse (Gabriel), Annie Enneking (Thea), Adelin Phelps (Cassie).


Theater Latte Da's 'Lullaby' hits the right note

Chris HewittThe Pioneer Press

January 17, 2016


If music can help us heal, can it also make us hurt? That's one of the themes suggested by "Lullaby," the play-with-songs being given its world premiere production by Theater Latte Da.

That's not all the play is about, of course. There are but four characters in "Lullaby" but, over the course of 90 minutes or so, they grapple with addiction, depression, suicide, insomnia, cancer, unrequited lust and poopy diapers.

You could argue Michael Elyanow's comedy -- oh, yeah, it's a comedy -- is a trifle overstuffed.

But Jeremy B. Cohen's graceful production holds it together, shifting fluidly between two settings -- a Massachusetts home and a Boston lesbian bar -- as three characters cope with parallel difficulties: Cassie (Adelin Phelps) and her inability to move past the death of her music-loving husband (David Darrow, mostly on-stage as a ghost), bar owner/singer Thea (Annie Enneking) and her inability to say goodbye to a bad relationship and Cassie's father, Gabriel (James Eckhouse), and his inability to stop enabling his alcohol-addicted wife.

None of that sounds terribly funny but the play's greatest gift -- or maybe its second-greatest -- is Elyanow's bracing wit, which brings us up short every time we fear the piece is about to get maudlin or pat.

There's a modern, absurdist side to Elyanow's humor -- as when a character describes the doughnut hole as "the best use of negative space ever" -- but also a Neil Simon-like craftsmanship in one-liners such as Thea's reaction to the description of a pedantically curated microbrewery ale: "Whatever just came out of your mouth just now sounds so f------ horrible, I gotta have one."

Enneking rips into that line -- and all her lines -- with a gusto that is as refreshing as it is hilarious.

Her brash, sharp-tonged Thea is Elyanow's strongest characterization, a woman who has lived just enough life to understand others' contradictory behavior but not quite enough to understand her own.

A woman of many parts, Enneking (who also teaches and choreographs stage combat) gets to bring together two of them -- acting and rock singing -- and the results are spectacular, as if she's thrilled to be able to use so much of her talent in service to a character that talent fits perfectly.

Thea and Cassie come together when the latter asks the former to teach her to play the guitar, so she can sing lullabies to her infant son but also because it may help her process the grief she feels for her late husband, who brought music into their lives and who, she fears, may have taken it away forever with his death.

Cassie's story ends up having to do with depression and, without spoiling the play's surprises, it features an unusually intelligent and compassionate treatment of the subject, one that grapples with not only how difficult the disease must be for the loved ones of its sufferers but also how agonizing it is for the depressed person who doesn't know how to get help.

There are no easy answers in "Lullaby," but it does guide its characters toward reconciliation.

The moving-toward-happiness ending, in fact, is one of many reminders of Gabriel's alcoholic wife, who we don't meet but who would undoubtedly be familiar with the serenity prayer.

That prayer hovers over the play's finale, by which time the characters have hopefully learned to accept what they can and cannot change and to know the difference between the two.

Chris Hewitt can be reached at 651-228-5552.

Follow him on /ChrisHMovie.

What: "Lullaby"

When: Through Feb. 7

Where: Ritz Theater, 345 13 Ave. NE, Mpls.

Tickets: $37-$23, 612-339-3003 or

Capsule: The play-with-music is clever and compassionate.