Magnificent actors bring cats and dogs and pains to life at Chamber Theatre

Jenny Wanasek and James Tasse are marvelous in “Chiapatti” at Chamber.

There is nothing quite as interesting as a look – a deep look -inside the deepest reaches of another person. Photo by Paul Ruffalo. 

A look the diamonds and stones, the warts and dimples, faith and doubt.

That’s the look that comes if you are in the audience at the riveting production of Christian O’Reilly’s “Chiapatti” being staged at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.

Put together a director with a great touch of intelligence mixed with sincerity and two of the best actors you will ever see in Milwaukee and you end up with 90 minutes of a ride on an emotional zip line – traveling from here to there slowly but deliberately. There are no stops in this play.

The tale is of two neighbors.

Dan, who along with his dog Chiapatti, lives alone after the death of his one love, Martha.

Betty, who lives with a bitter much older neighbor and cats – lots of cats – enough cats so she even refers to herself as the “old cat lady.”

The thing between them might well come from the Billy Joel song…”sharing a drink they call onliness.” Dan’s a lifelong bachelor, even though he had one deep love with his Martha. Betty is a long-time widow whose life is wrapped up in and dedicated to her cats.

The two first cross paths at the office of the local vet where Dan has gone to get an unneeded checkup for his dog. Betty drops a cardboard box holding a bunch of kittens who squeal around the waiting room, putting dogs and people on edge.

Dan is obviously struck by Betty’s reaction, which is one of unstoppable and almost hysterical laughter.

“Laughing is what I used to do when Martha was here,” says  Dan after he his home and recalling the cat lady.

From that first moment, Dan and Betty walk haltingly toward each other.

The unique style of Mr. O’Reilly’s play is that most of it is conducted in a monologue, based in separate locations in the sparse set designed by Sandra J. Strawn. It is only on rare occasion that both Betty and Dan are in the same place, interacting with each other.

This is  a play where both the mundane pace of daily duty and the unexpected jolt live side-by-side with equal impact.  It would be unfair to mention the surprises, but they are part and parcel of the gentle ride along this path.

This story is an unremarkable one but it comes alive by the magnificent performances of James Tasse and Jenny Wanasek, two of the most experienced and accomplished actors this city has ever seen.

And it is to the eloquent testimony of director Michelle Lopez-Rios who knows what she’s got and is willing to let them have their way on this stage. It’s easy to over-direct a play, but it is the smart ones who know just how much is needed and Ms. Lopez-Rios shows mature and remarkable restraint in shaping this production.

Mr. Tasse is fine fettle as an aging Irish laborer who has reached a place where he doesn’t have much, if anything, to live for. His body is laced with ache, but not nearly as the ache in his heart. aches but not nearly as painfully as his heart.

He is gruff as well as generous with both his time and his effort, withholding only his affections and his commitments.

Ms. Wanasek is a marvel as Betty. She is lonely, but has filled her life with the cats. She is fully aware that the main thing that she has missed out of life is genuine love. Her marriage was loveless and she is acutely aware of her dreams of what a life of love might be.

Under the long time guidance of C. Michael Wright, Chamber has made a mark with plays about people. It may be conscious or it may not be, but some of the most memorable and intimate plays about the foibles of humanity have been at Chamber. This one goes to the head of this long and admirable line.


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