Emjoy Gavino and Alexandra Main are both enormous in Little Voice

Photo by Brave Luz—Joe Manno

I am used to seeing shows from The Gift Theatre in its old, cramped quarters on Milwaukee Ave. That storefront (more of a large closet, really) was a casualty of the pandemic, and the company now finds itself ensconced in the nearby Filament Theatre, a much more spacious and comfortable—not to mention flexible—house. The Gift, however, has not missed a beat in the transition. In fact, the first show of its new season, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, while it certainly could have been performed in the old space, is absolutely enhanced by the new digs. And, with two extraordinary performances, it is a perfect reminder of the gift that The Gift is to Chicago theatre.

The play, directed with aplomb by Devon de Mayo and Peter Anderson, tells the story of a young woman whose mother calls her Little Voice or LV because of her incredible shyness; besides limiting her comfort zone to her bedroom, where she endlessly plays the records her father left her, she is mostly unable to speak above a very small sound. LV, though, is in fact poorly named: singing along to those records in remarkable facsimiles of famous voices from Judy Garland to Billie Holliday, she is an amazing talent. Unfortunately, she is terrified of singing in public, so no one really knows about her. Emjoy Gavino, an actress whose presence in a cast has always signified good things to me, gets to show off her own voice (which is wonderful) as she performs so many spot-on impersonations.

Gavino’s intensely introverted performance (except when singing) is perfectly countered by LV’s outrageous mother, Mari (played by Alexandra Main with an amount of exuberance and self-indulgence that would be overacting in almost any other character but here is perfect). Mari is raising her daughter alone in a cramped apartment and seems to live in the desperate hope that someone will help her escape from the squalor in which she finds herself. There is almost no food in the house, people gag whenever the fridge is opened, LV has the only bedroom—probably Mari discovered long ago that her daughter would be impossible to live with if she had no private place to retreat to—and (more than anything else) the electricity keeps shorting out due to the excessive use of extension cords that are spread across practically every surface. (Scenic designer Hannah Clark has outdone herself with this set.)

Between Gavino shrinking so much she practically disappears and Main chewing up the scenery so much that it’s amazing anything is left, there seems to be little room remaining for other personalities here, which may be why a neighbor named Sadie May—a woman with significant personality issues of her own as well as clear intellectual and emotional disabilities—is the only friend who appears. (Sadie May is played by Julia Rowley, but I saw her performed by Amanda Hays.) Sadie May is perfect for the role of Mari’s shadow—she exuberantly follows whatever the older woman tells her to and seems to enjoy just being part of things. Meanwhile, a quiet phone man named Billy (who installed a new phone near the start of the play) played by Martel Manning has become intrigued by the super-shy LV and, in several subtle and not-so-subtle ways, tries to edge into her life, and it is clear from the outset that he would be a good match for her.

When Mari’s galavanting brings an aspiring promoter into their lives (Ray Say, played by Ben Veatch) and he hears LV singing alone in her room, he realizes that, for the first time, he has discovered a major unknown talent, and he becomes determined to see her perform on stage at a local club run by Mr. Boo (Watson Swift). It is amazing and wonderful to watch and hear Gavino doing a montage of clips from famous singers, but LV was not born for that world.

As well-acted as it is, this play is also a wonder of design. In this area, the directing duo found themselves perfect partners. In addition to Clark’s intentionally cluttered, beautifully ugly set, there is the sound designed by Forrest Gregor. Aside from the aforementioned electrical shortages (which, as good as they are, become a bit annoying through repetition, as does a directorial decision to stage door-knocking by kicking the platform), there are multiple other well-crafted effects, especially when LV actually performs at the club. The lighting by Gabrielle Strong is outstanding throughout, but never more so than in Billy’s light show finale, which he stages just for LV as an act of love, and kClare McKellaston’s costuming is wonderful, especially for the over-reaching and self-aggrandizing Mari…though Mr. Boo’s deserves at least a mention.

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice sets its stakes clearly from the beginning (even in its title), so we know who we will be rooting for (and who should fail immensely). The surprises along the way are mostly not for what happens but how things happen, and it’s no surprise at all that LV herself is one of the most memorable—and, in her shy way, most likable—characters you could hope to meet, nor that Billy is the man she needs in her introverted life. As he seeks new ways to find and work with light, he’s exactly perfect for bringing some into her restrained world.

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, a production on The Gift Theatre, is playing at Filament Theatre, 4041 N. Milwaukee in Chicago through October 15.  Performance times vary; check the website at thegifttheatre.org.  Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com

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