Elizabeth Crane’s 2003 debut collection of stories, When the Messenger Is Hot, offered the unusual combination of experimental forms applied to the travails of dating in the city, Candace Bushnell reborn as Lydia Davis. Laura Eason, in adapting the book for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, has made Crane at once a less idiosyncratic and more approachable writer. The stories’ hyper-awareness still comes through, primarily via a device echoing Albee’s Three Tall Women: Eason splits her protagonist Josie into three, allowing for a running internal mono/dialogue. But the play focuses less on Josie herself than on her relationships, particularly the pivotal one with her formidable, dying mother. In weaving together several unrelated stories from Crane’s collection, Eason drops a few stitches: Some puzzling features of Mom’s New York apartment, for instance, make more sense in their original suburban context (e.g., the yard). On the whole, though, her adaptation discovers a compelling emotional core in Crane’s sometimes chilly work.
Giving Steppenwolf a well-crafted character study is like giving Steinbrenner a manager to fire: It’s a chance to do what they do best. Kate Arrington, Lauren Katz, and Amy Warren bring strikingly different styles and tones to their three Josies—Arrington, in particular, adeptly portrays both Josie’s relentless intellect and the vulnerability hiding behind it. Towering over them all is the commanding presence of Molly Regan as Josie’s profane opera-singer mom. Under Jessica Thebus’s crisp direction, their nuanced interactions raise even the more familiar aspects of Eason’s adaptation into elegant, exploratory truth.