The Austin Chronicle

Vortex Repertory Company's Storm Still

Gabrielle Reisman's script refashions King Lear into the daughters' story, and the Vortex stages it with admirable heart

Reviewed by Elizabeth Cobbe, September 15, 2017, Arts

Three sisters are cleaning out the house of their father, who has recently died. As anyone who's ever done that knows, it's emotionally taxing work. The older sisters, Goneril (Andreá Smith) and Regan (Jennifer Coy Jennings), begin to play a game from when they were kids. With some arm-twisting of their reluctant sister Cordelia (Amelia Turner), they act out the story of (surprise!) King Lear.

It's not a total lifting of the Shakespeare, nor does it wholly abandon the original language. The exact mix is murky and clever, and without the benefit of a script to read along with and annotate, it's best just to roll with it.

Playwright Gabrielle Reisman pokes and jostles King Lear enough to make Storm Still into the daughters' story. Here, Regan and Goneril aren't the cruel, unfeeling daughters who profess their love for their father to get an inheritance, only to take away his retinue and his dignity as soon as he's handed over power. Neither is Cordelia totally sweet and loyal. In Storm Still, their father was harsh and unfeeling, locking them outside in the rain if they didn't smile enough, ripping into them when he could. Regan and Goneril stuck it out to the end, caring for him during his final year of dementia, but Cordelia had fled to a new life overseas years ago. After avoiding a trip home for years, she's returned to help clean out the house.

Storm Still is a play for theatre lovers. To get the full effect, it's a good idea to glance at your old copy of King Lear in advance or at least read a summary. But even without that, the underlying conflict among the sisters is powerful and very human. A striking moment is Goneril's exchange with their father, inside the gameplay, telling him that he can't keep all 100 of his retainers, because doesn't he see how they're wrecking the place? Balanced with the abuse she endured for years from a vain, self-centered father in the house they're cleaning out, Goneril and Regan's moves against their father, born of aggravation, painfully make sense. So does their resentment of Cordelia, the favorite daughter, who left them behind.

Director Rudy Ramirez moves the cast through the story with great pacing. He also benefits from three great casting choices. Individually, each performer is great to watch, but together they've committed to a shared physical language that Storm Still needs. Ann Marie Gordon has designed a great set for the Vortex's outdoor stage, where light and sound from the bar and food trailer inevitably bleed over. It's simple, but the run-down, shoddy look of the house (it would be tough to make something upscale in that space) works in contrast with the talk of kings and earls and castles.

The Vortex has succeeded in producing a great show with an excellent cast, using a script that fits the crunchy space. It's a smart piece of programming with admirable heart.

Storm Still

The Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd., 512/478-5282
Through Sept. 24
Running time: 1 hr., 20 min.

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