Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
Norma McCorvey is a fascinating and complicated figure. As a young woman living in Texas, she became the “Roe” behind that landmark U.S. Supreme Court case when she filed a lawsuit seeking a legal abortion. In later years as a born-again Christian, she joined the pro-life movement and campaigned against abortion. Lisa Loomer’s play, a co-production of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, arrives at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage at a critical time. Incoming President Donald Trump has promised to appoint conservative justices to the Supreme Court, a possible first strike to overturning Roe v. Wade.
Loomer is comfortable tackling controversial topics. She co-wrote the screenplay for Girl Interrupted, which starred Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie as women in a psychiatric facility. Her play, The Waiting Room, brought together three women from different time periods who meet in a doctor’s office, each suffering from undergoing cosmetic procedures – foot binding, corsetry, and breast implants – to conform to society’s idea of beauty. In an interview with the New York Times, she said that she initially resisted the idea of writing a play about Roe v. Wade, feeling that a court case “sounds kind of dry.” But after doing research, she changed her mind.
Sarah Jane Agnew, Susan Lynskey, Amy Newman, and Pamela Dunlap
The play focuses on the two central figures in the lawsuit, McCorvey and Sarah Weddington, the 26 year-old attorney who argues the case all the way to the Supreme Court. It’s 1969 and McCorvey, who has already given birth to two children, one being raised by her mother, the other, placed for adoption, finds herself pregnant for the third time. Weddington and her law partner, Linda Coffee, have been looking to file a lawsuit against the state of Texas on behalf of a pregnant woman seeking a legal abortion. After an initial meeting in a Dallas pizza parlor, the two lawyers find their plaintiff. Because McCorvey doesn’t want her real name used in the lawsuit, she becomes not Jane Doe but Jane Roe. The lawsuit is filed against Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade.
McCorvey and Weddington are polar opposites. With her wild hair and worn hippie clothing, McCorvey, played convincingly by Sara Bruner, shows the effects of a hardscrabble life. Raised by her alcoholic mother, McCorvey abuses alcohol herself and has several run ins with the law. After leaving her abusive husband, she comes out as a lesbian with a lover, Connie (Catherine Castellanos). Weddington (Sarah Jane Agnew) is an ambitious lawyer in a field dominated by men. With her carefully coifed blond hair and conservative yet feminine suits, she’s able to charm McCorvey one minute and argue forcefully in court the next. Both Bruner and Agnew break the fourth wall, frequently talking directly to the audience about what is transpiring as the case wends it way through the courts.
Except for Bruner and Agnew, these versatile cast members move in and out of many different roles, never missing a beat. Particularly impressive is Susan Lynsky who plays Linda Coffee as the uptight assistant to the more polished Weddington, trransforms into a zealous supporter of the abortion movement, then shows up as a timid pregnant woman. Jim Abele, who plays Weddington’s strait-laced husband, Ron, morphs into the Bible-thumping Flip Benham, founder of a pro-life movement. He not only breaks the fourth wall, but addresses the audience like we’re part of his loyal congregation.
Sara Bruner and Jim Abele, in front, with Zoe Bishop and Amy Newman, in rear
After the Supreme Court ruling (Richard Elmore as Justice Harry Blackmun in a black robe reads some of the language from the decision to great effect), McCorvey works in a clinic, helping other women through the process. This is where her commitment to abortion begins to waver. Loomer skillfully shows McCorvey’s change of heart as a gradual process. She’s horrified when a woman who is six-months along comes in to terminate the pregnancy. Another woman who comes to the clinic for what will be her third abortion, receives an outburst from McCorvey that the procedure shouldn’t be treated as birth control. But it’s the influence of Flip, his wife (Amy Newman), and daughter (Zoe Bishop), that has the greatest impact on McCorvey’s attitude towards abortion. When McCorvey crosses to the other side, she’s a zealous pro-lifer.
While Roe v. Wade still stands, Roxanne (Kenya Alexander), a young black woman unable to afford an abortion, delivers a caution to those who believe abortion is available to all women. Final words are delivered by Agnew as Weddington, stating that the woman running for president, a supporter of abortion rights, won the popular vote but lost the election.
Despite that pro-abortion ending, the play provides enough ammunition for both sides of the debate. As Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith stated in the program notes: “If the ideas in this play inspire you to spark conversations with your loved ones, contact your representatives and become active in your community, theater has done its job.”
Photos by C. Stanley Photography Top photo: Sara Bruner and Sarah Jane Agnew
Roe Written by Lisa Loomer Directed by Bill Rauch Through February 19, 2017 Arena Stage 1101 Sixth Street SW
“[T]here is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.”
Lookingglass Theatre Company’s production of Moby Dick, now playing at Arena Stage, is filled with mind-blowing special effects, but not the computer-generated kind ubiquitous in action films. Instead, we have actors who take full advantage of an intricate stage set which allows them to climb, twirl, and soar, while chasing, and then battling, Captain Ahab’s nemesis, the great white whale known as Moby Dick. This is a thrilling theater experience, bringing to life Herman Melville’s classic story. Ahab, who lost a leg during his last encounter with the whale, is obsessed with finding and killing the beast, his thirst for vengeance irrational, placing his crew’s lives in danger. It’s a cautionary tale with a message that continues to find relevance, no matter the time and place.
Lookingglass’s production, adapted and directed by David Catlin, debuted in Chicago and comes to Washington, D.C., after a run in Atlanta. Except for a few substitutions, the cast remains intact and obviously has hit its stride. This is an incredibly talented ensemble, delving into their characters, even when required to deliver lines while hanging from the ships’ masts, represented by a circular medal construction that mimics a whale’s ribcage.
James Abelson and Anthony Fleming III
James Abelson begins the action by delivering the novel’s most famous line: “Call me Ishmael.” Down on his luck, he decides to ship out and travels to the wealthy whaling port of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Having missed the ferry that would have taken him to Nantucket, he spends the night at the Spouter Inn, sharing a bed with Queequeg, a pagan with unusual culinary desires. “I suppose it better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian,” Ishmael says. Strange bedfellows, indeed. The two soon become unlikely good friends. Anthony Fleming III, sporting numerous tattoos, is riveting as Queequeg.
The three “Fates,” played by Kelley Abell, Cordelia Dewdney, and Kasey Foster, are a menacing presence, foreshadowing what awaits those who cast their lot with Captain Ahab on the Pequod. (Read the interview with the three actresses.) While Ishmael weighs his decision to join Ahab’s crew, the trio runs down the whalers who have died. “There is so much death in this business of whaling,” Ishmael says. “But still …I must go.”
Christopher Donahue and Walter Owen Briggs
As Ahab, Christopher Donahue is a formidable presence. Without tipping over into caricature, he captures Ahab’s obsession to seek revenge on the whale, a steely determination that teeters on insanity. “Vengeance on a dumb animal?,” the first mate, Starbuck (Walter Owen Briggs), tells Ahab. “That unthinking whale took your leg from blind instinct, sir. What you propose is…blasphemous, sir.” Hobbling around on stage with a false leg, Donahue’s Ahab is both threatening and vulnerable. He does eventually give in to the demand by Starbuck, to go after another whale to fill up the ship’s barrels with oil, but that’s a temporary diversion from the main mission.
Cordelia Dewdney and Javen Ulambayar
Throughout the production, the acrobatic feats are terrific. (The cast worked with the Actors Gymnasium in Chicago.) When the men take the whale boats to sea, they stand on wooden platforms suspended from ropes that swing back and forth, nearly over the audience. Javen Ulambayar, a skilled circus performer, makes good use of those skills as the sailor Mungun, particularly in the scene where he meets his demise. One of the Fates, Dewdney, also plays a downed whale; she’s hoisted up, the layers of her clothing, representing blubber, carefully stripped away to reveal a cage.
The final battle with the white whale is surprising and thrilling. (Warning: these scenes include loud noises and bright lights.) When the sea finally claims Ahab and his crew in a scene that is both clever and beautiful, Ishmael is the only one to survive. “I alone am escaped to tell thee. Call me Ishmael.”
Photos by Greg Mooney
Moby Dick Kreeger Stage Arena Stage 1101 Sixth Street, SW Through December 24, 2016
Carousel was the second musical produced by the dynamic team of Rodgers and Hammerstein following their ground breaking Oklahoma! If audiences expected another feel good show, they were surprised. Carousel is based on Liliom, a somber 1909 play by the Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár. A failure when it was first staged in Hungary, Liliom fared better when it was produced on Broadway in 1921. Carousel, which opened on Broadway in 1945, received positive reviews and has since been revived numerous times. Carousel’s themes of forgiveness, healing, and redemption always seem to hit home. In that respect, Arena’s new production couldn’t come at a better time.
Despite the photos in Arena’s ads, there’s no actual carousel on the Fichandler circular stage. Indeed, Todd Rosenthal’s set design is rather sparse, with a floor of whitewashed wood and crates that are frequently rearranged depending upon the scene. The orchestra is housed in a gazebo, above the stage, while the music director, Paul Sportelli, waves his baton from a spot below the stage. Except for glowing stars in the second act, there are no props. The actors mime drinking coffee, playing the accordion, playing cards, digging clams, and picking up garbage. Without extraneous distractions, our attention stays focused on the players and their stories.
Billy Bigelow is a barker for a carnival in small town Maine. With his roughish good looks, Billy has no trouble attracting women, most of whom work in the local mill and come to ride the carousel for entertainment. He’s an alpha male and an irresistible draw for the shy and inexperienced Julie Jordan (Betsy Morgan). Nicholas Rodriguez, his black fedora tipped at a jaunty angle, brings to mind a young Sinatra, who was originally cast as Billy in the film. Billy and Julie assess their growing attraction in one of the musical’s best known songs, “If I Loved You,” a sweet moment that, unfortunately, sets up expectations that will never be met after the two are married. Billy is caught between two women; Julie, and Mrs. Mullin (E. Faye Butler), who not only owns the carnival, but acts like she owns Billy, too. When he defies her order to leave Julie and get back to work, she fires him. Julie, too, loses her job after missing her shift at the factory, choosing to stay with Billy at the carnival.
Betsy Morgan and Kate Rockwell
Julie’s good friend, Carrie (an exuberant Kate Rockwell), also has a boyfriend (Kurt Boehm). Rockwell’s heartfelt tribute to her beau, “Mister Snow,” glosses over his shortcomings. When I marry Mister Snow/ The flowers’ll be buzzin’ with the hum of bees. Neither woman hits the romance jackpot. Billy, beset by job and financial setbacks, will take his anger out on Julie, abusing her psychologically and actually hitting her at one point. (While some productions have downplayed this aspect of domestic violence, Director Molly Smith wisely recognizes that it’s a problem that hasn’t gone away.) Enoch Snow isn’t abusive, but he’s a control freak, seething with jealously. When he catches Carrie dancing with another man, he quickly breaks off their relationship. They reunite after Carrie desperately pleads with him.
For Billy, the turning point comes when Julie tells him she’s pregnant. Contemplating fatherhood, Billy is overjoyed. Rodriguez literally stops the show, his strong baritone delivering an emotional “Soliloquy.” You can have fun with a son/But you gotta be a father to a girl. Eager to provide for his child, Billy gives in to pressure from his shiftless friend, Jigger (a very convincing Kyle Schliefer), to rob the mill’s owner, David Bascombe (Thomas Adrian Simpson). The whole town is celebrating with a clam bake, and Billy and Jigger attend, using the event as a cover for eventually leaving and staging the holdup. Billy carries a knife that he plans to use to threaten Bascombe, not kill him. But when the plan goes awry, Billy opts to kill himself rather than face the possibility of prison. Julie holds Billy as he’s dying and finally whispers what she has never told him, “I love you.” Julie is comforted by her cousin, Nettie, played by Ann Arvia, delivering a gosse-bump-inducing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Now on the other side, Billy tries in vain to gain admittance to heaven, arguing with heavenly friend (Nicole Wildy) that he wants to see “The Highest Judge of All.” His one chance is to return to earth and try to redeem himself. Fifteen years have passed. Billy’s daughter, Louise, is now a teenager, and not a happy one, bullied by classmates about her criminal father. Skye Mattox’s Louise displays her hurt and passion in a dance sequence that is both sad and beautiful. It’s an exquisite piece of choreography by Parker Esse, with a tour de force performance by Mattox. She’s now on our radar.
Everything comes together in the end. Julie somehow feels Billy’s presence and knows that he did truly love her. Louise understands that her father’s mistakes are not hers and that her life is truly her own. And Billy’s visit to earth, where he makes himself visible to Louise, comforts her, and gives her a star, is enough to gain him admittance to heaven.
Kudos to costume designer Ilona Somogyi and wig designer Anne Nesmith for creating a period look that was both aesthetically pleasing and wonderful to look at without distracting from the performances.
Rodgers and Hammerstein never shied away from tackling important and, at times, controversial issues in their musicals. Oklahoma! has upbeat songs, but also deals with political and cultural issues that erupted between farmers and cattlemen. South Pacific and The King and I confront racism. Great musicals endure because at their core they have powerful messages that encourage us to be better than we are. Carousel does that. And it’s a message we need to hear now. Go see it.
Photos by Maria Baranova Top photo Betsy Morgan and Nicholas Rodriguez
Carousel Fichlander Theater Arena Stage 1101 Sixth Street SW Through December 24, 2016
“Call me Ishmael.” The first line in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is one of the most memorable in literature. Published in 1851, the novel’s themes – obsession, greed, duty, friendship, and, of course, death – remain relevant. Two films have depicted the face off between man and whale, the 1956 version directed by John Huston, with Gregory Peck as the ship’s Captain Ahab, and 2015’s In the Heart of the Sea, directed by Ron Howard, with Chris Helmsworth as first mate, Owen Chase.
This holiday season theatergoers in Washington, D.C. will experience something totally different – a stage version that uses daring trapeze and acrobatic work, rather than computer generated special effects, to recreate Melville’s spell-binding story. The production is the brainchild of David Catlin, a founding ensemble member of Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company. After runs in Chicago and Atlanta, Moby Dick will play in Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theatre from November 18 through December 24. The set, designed by Courtney O’Neill, includes a portion of the ship’s deck and what mimics a whale ribcage as the ship’s masts. As much action takes place above the stage as on it, as the actors climb, twirl, swing, and hang from the rigging.
According to Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith, “The story just doesn’t come alive in this production, it flies in the air all around you. Prepare to be amazed.”
While there are only two minor female figures in the novel, the stage version includes three actresses, whose characters are identified ominously as “Fate.” We had the opportunity to ask these actresses – Kelley Abell, Cordelia Dewdney, and Kasey Foster – about the production and their roles.
“I actually saw an earlier version of this production at Northwestern University before hearing about it,” said Foster. “When I saw the women playing the powerful role of Fate, I fell in love.” Abell called the play’s women, “pretty essential and antithetical to the men: the force that gives life, and that which takes it away.”
What do the women as Fate represent? “One could see the women as representing the whale, but as an actor I prefer to perceive that, as a Fate, I have the power to become the very things that influence the sailors,” said Dewdney. “Thus, the Fates create and control the inevitable, but are simultaneously swallowed up by the inevitable themselves.” Added Abell, “It’s a nice dichotomy we get to play with: human characters who create actual emotional or intellectual obstacles to the men – and the metaphors that haunt and drive them.”
Christopher Donahue as Captain Ahab and Cordelia Dewdney as Fate
Dewdney said she first read Moby Dick for an American literature class her freshman year in college. “I had a wonderful teacher who dressed up as the characters or writers of the books we were reading, and for Moby she donned all white!” she said. “I was most struck by unstoppable movement of the storyline. The writing has a unique circuitous path that, no matter how many winding twists it takes, always falls to the chase of the men’s inevitable fates.”
Abell said she first listened to Moby Dick on tape while driving to and from high school. “I was struck by the incredibly detailed descriptions that fill the book, the minutia of rigging and whale parts and hooping spare barrels, the monotony of those mundane tasks that made up a whaler’s life,” she said. “At 18, I think I was frustrated at how little happened in the book, you know, where’s the romance, where’s the intrigue, where are the women, but coming back to the story as an adult, I see my own fixation on the small details of my life that Melville so beautifully captured. The minutia is the stuff that makes up a life, is it not?”
After a performance in Atlanta, the actors met with a group of high school students and one young woman offered her interpretation, that “man can become so swept up in his pursuit of x – money, fortune, fame, power – that he loses perspective, that he loses sight of his own human purpose, and that he forsakes his connection with humanity in the wake of his frenzy,” said Abell. “I wish we could bring her along as a spokesperson!”
Dewdney noted that while the play illustrates the prejudice and racism that existed during Melville’s time, Moby Dick is also about friendship, including the close bond that exists between Queequeg, a tattooed cannibal, and Ishmael, a white sailor. “Once they leave the society that separates them, they find that the ship binds them,” observed Foster. Abell said that early in the play, Ahab invites the men – “Pagans and Christians alike” – to be equals. “I see the quality of the diverse crew as essential to our production,” she said. “But it feels more about what it is to be essentially human, those truths which resonate most deeply.”
The actors prepared for their physically demanding roles by working with instructors from Chicago’s Actors Gymnasium. “Many of us came into the production with dance or physical theatre training, but many of the circus elements were very new to me,” said Abell. “In Act 2, the women are incorporated into a straps routine, including a trick which took me countless failed attempts to master. Turns out that quick thinking while spinning in mid-air is not something that comes as easily to me as panic does. Cordelia [Dewdnwy] has the most circus tricks of us all – and she handles them all like a true pro.”
In addition, the three women had to learn to work together as a team, since they are often moving together, ostensibly, in the sea, perhaps representing the whale. “These are some amazing women I work with who both think and work deeply and honestly,” said Abell. “During rehearsals we had some time to work as a trio – how to move as one unit, how to sing as one unit, how to feel cohesive as the `Fate’ of all these men. We’ve become experts with peripheral vision and speaking at the same time.”
The production has received rave reviews wherever it has been staged. “Oh, we are so curious [to see how audiences in D.C. react],” said Abell. What they do know is that the story of one man’s relentless pursuit of a whale continues to resonate. “One of the hardest things to do in this life, is to `let go’,” said Foster. “Whether loosening your grip on the way things used to be, or letting go of a loved one, the concept of moving on often feels impossible. Ahab has a grip, stronger than anyone, and it brings him to his death. Everyone can relate to Ahab, because we all understand the feeling of holding on too firmly.”
Moby Dick Lookingglass Theatre Company Adapted and dirceted by David Caitlin from the book by Herman Melville Co-production with the Alliance Theatre and South Coast Repertory Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater 1101 Sixth Street, SW 202-488-3300 November 18 through December 24, 2016
Photos by Greg Mooney Top photo: Kasey Foster as Fate
Grab your daughter and run to see Freaky Friday, now playing at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. Don’t live nearby? Don’t worry. Freaky Friday was developed by Disney Theatrical to be licensed through its partner, Musical Theatre International, first to professional and then to amateur theaters. So the production may be coming to a venue near you. When it does, don’t miss it.
Heidi Blickenstaff and Emma Hunton (Photo by Jim Saah)
Disney, constantly mining its film vault for material that can be recast for the stage, made a wise call with this one. Freaky Friday is the kind of feel good show with a message that never grows old. As a writer for NBC’s Parenthood, Bridget Carpenter knows something about family relationships. For the musical’s book, she took the basic story – a mom and daughter inadvertently switching bodies for a day – while updating the themes to resonate with a young, tech savvy audience. Besides an enjoyable two hours in the theater, the musical should spark followup conversations with young people about social pressure, cliques, body image, and privacy.
Disney decided to premiere the production at Signature and brought together a talented creative team to make it happen. They included, from Broadway: director, Christopher Ashley (Memphis); musical score, Tom Kitt, and lyrics, Brian Yorke (the duo behind the Tony Award-winning Next to Normal); choreography, Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys, On Your Feet); set design, Beowulf Boritt (Tony Award, Act One); Emily Rebholz, costume design (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike); and lighting design, Howell Brinkley (Hamilton, Tony Award).
Heidi Blickenstaff with the Cast (Photo by Jim Saah)
Heidi Blickenstaff, who delighted Broadway audiences with her performance in Something Rotten, plays the mom, Katherine, a widow and type-A personality who is driven to control everything and everyone around her. Besides running a successful catering business, she’s taken on the job of planning her wedding to Mike (Alan H. Green). But she still has time to micromanage her children, ten year-old Fletcher (Jake Heston Miller), and teenage Ellie (Emma Hunton).
Katherine fails to see that her upcoming marriage is having an impact on her children, who still miss their father. While the younger Fletcher retreats into a fantasy world with his puppets – a hippo and a starfish – Ellie lashes out at her mother. A tussle over a vintage hourglass with magical powers zaps Katherine into her daughter’s body, while Ellie morphs into her mother’s. Ellie is quickly overwhelmed, struggling to cope with being a mother and soon to be wife, while her employees look to her for guidance. Katherine, meanwhile, finds herself in high school, struggling in gym class, dissecting a frog in biology, and dealing with mean girls.
Blickenstaff perfectly captures the mannerisms, facial expressions, and speech patterns of a teenager. She twists strands of hair, wrings her hands, and bats her eyes. Faced with Adam (Jason Gotay), the boy Ellie has a crush on, she positively melts. The poor young man, has no idea why his classmate’s mother is acting so strangely.
Sherri L. Edelen, Emma Hutton, Jason SweetTooth Williams, Heidi Blickenstaff (Photo by Margot Schulman)
Conversely, Hunton becomes more restrained, an adult in a teenage body. When mother and daughter wind up in the high school counselor’s office, what unfolds is clever and hilarious. Two officials (played by Jason SweetTooth Williams and Sherri L. Edelen) critique Ellie’s school performance. Katherine (really Ellie), dismisses their concerns, her casual body language speaking volumes. Meanwhile, Ellie (really Katherine), takes their concerns seriously, perched on the edge of the sofa, ready to take action. Both actresses play the scene for all it’s worth.
Jason Gotay with the Teen Ensemble (Photo by Jim Saah)
The teen ensemble is terrific. Kudos to Trujillo’s choreography, particularly the gym scene where the students use inflated bouncy balls to great effect. Storm Lever, as Ellie’s nemesis, Savannah, perfectly captures the manipulative attitude that defines so many mean girls.
Heidi Blickenstaff and Jake Heston Miller (Photo by Margot Schulman)
Jake Heston Miller, who has to be one of the busiest child actors around, having last appeared as Oliver at Arena Stage, is just plain adorable as Fletcher. And the scenes between him and Katherine (who is really Ellie) are sweet moments, sibling bonding under unusual circumstances. Katherine first bursts his bubble in Act One with the hurtful, “Parents Lie,” then redeems herself in Act Two with the sweet “After All of This and Everything.”
There’s a brilliant and brave moment in the musical which will speak to so many young girls who obsess over their bodies. Ellie and her two besties – Katie Ladner as Gretchen and Shayna Blass as Hannah – strip down to own their appearance. Bravo!
With the day coming to a close, Katherine and Ellie manage to switch back, just in time for Katherine to be wed to the long-suffering, yet very perceptive, Mike. He knows better than Katherine that winning over his stepchildren will take some time. But thanks to the day’s events, mother and daughter have reached a greater understanding. There’s no better way to empathize with someone else than by taking time to actually walk in their shoes. That’s a message for the ages and for all ages.
For information on licensing Freaky Friday, contact MTI by phone, 212-541-4684, or email, email@example.com
Top photo credit: Margot Schulman
Freaky Friday Signature Theatre Through November 20, 2016 4200 Campbell Avenue Arlington, VA 703-820-9771
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death.” Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
Let’s face it. No one wants to think about death, about our own or those close to us. So deciding to spend an evening in the theater listening to a play that focuses on death may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Still, by the end of The Year of Magical Thinking, we come away, not exactly elated, but not exactly depressed. Partly that’s due to the eloquent words of Joan Didion on whose memoir the play is based. Mostly, though, it’s because of a heartfelt, deeply affecting performance by one of the greatest actors of her generation, Kathleen Turner.
Turner, whose credits include many stage and screen performances, is not a stranger to Arena Stage, where The Year of Magical Thinking is now playing. She previously appeared in Mother Courage and Her Children and Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins. Each time she appears at Arena Stage, it’s an event. This time is no exception. With expert direction from Gaye Taylor Upchurch and staging in the intimate Kogood Cradle, Turner seems less to be acting than carrying on a conversation with a group of close friends. She makes frequent eye contact with the audience, establishing an emotional connection that draws you into the performance.
When Arena’s Artistic Director, Molly Smith, asked Turner which project she wanted to tackle next, she immediately mentioned The Year of Magical Thinking, saying the play “is about grace, and I want to bring that to the audience.” She certainly manages that, taking us through two horrific years in Didion’s life when she lost her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and their daughter, Quintana. Didion and Dunne not only were married for nearly 40 years, but had a professional relationship, writing screenplays for Panic in Needle Park, which starred a young Al Pacino, and Play It As It Lays, based on her novel, which starred Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld. They moved from New York to California after their marriage, in 1964, and in 1966 adopted a daughter, Quintana Roo.
Didion’s roller-coaster ride begins on December 30, 2003. Now living in New York, the couple had just been to visit Quintana who is in a coma at Beth Israel North (formerly Doctor’s Hospital), on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. They return to their apartment where Didion prepares dinner and builds a fire. “A fire meant you were home, safe for the night,” Turner says. At one point, Dunne stops talking and slumps over in his chair. At first, she thinks he is joking, but soon realizes he has passed out. An ambulance arrives quickly; she notes the exact times that each event occurred. At the hospital, she’s taken aside. “If they give you a social worker, you’re in trouble,” she says. She returns home with John’s wallet, cellphone, and clothes. “Grief has its place, but also it’s limits,” Turner says, explaining the aftermath, coping with John’s death and continuing to watch over their daughter.
When Quintana emerges from her coma, she’s told about the death of her father and is able to attend and speak at his funeral held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where she had been married just a short time before. Quintana and her husband decide to take a trip to California, something her mother encourages. While there she suffers a massive hematoma, requiring hours of surgery at UCLA Medical Center. Although she recovers, she dies of acute pancreatitis the following year. Two blows in two years. The original memoir only dealt with John’s death. Didion later wrote Blue Nights about Quintana’s death. The play was expanded to include Joan’s coping with both deaths.
How does one cope? By magical thinking, which Didion describes as an anthropologist would. If a person thinks long and hard enough that an event can be prevented, perhaps it would be. In the play, Turner talks about the inability to give away John’s shoes, with the hope that if she holds onto them, he will return.
The Year of Magical Thinking runs an hour and 50 minutes with no intermission. There’s no down time for Turner or for the audience, either. We sign on for this ride and in less time than we imagine, it’s over. What we have experienced, however, will stay with us for a long, long time.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography
Kathleen Turner in The Year of Magical Thinking By Joan Didion based on her memoir Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch Arena Stage 1101 Sixth Street SW
Lillian Hellman’s play, The Little Foxes, first premiered on Broadway in 1939, followed by a film in 1941. Tallulah Bankhead played the Hubbard family matriarch, Regina, on stage, with Bette Davis assuming that role on the big screen. The play has been revived on Broadway three times, with Anne Bancroft (1967), Elizabeth Taylor (1981), and Stockard Channing (1997) playing Regina. The Little Foxes will run from September 23 through October 30 at Arena Stage with Marg Helgenberger as Regina.
Since it’s been nearly ten years since the last Broadway revival, why now? “I think what this play has to say about women – powerful women – it’s incredibly timely, especially considering the election cycle that we are in,” said Megan Graves who plays Regina’s daughter, Alexandra, known as Zan. “Certainly, perspectives on women in 1900 [the time period of the play] are different, but in many ways, unfortunately, they are not. I think it’s surprisingly relevant.”
The Little Foxes centers on the very Southern Hubbard family: Regina; her husband, Horace; her two brothers, Benjamin and Oscar; Oscar’s wife, Birdie; and Zan. Hellman apparently based the characters on relatives from her mother’s family. In the early 20th century, only sons were considered legal heirs. Regina wants financial freedom and she will stop at nothing to obtain that independence. “The stakes in this play are very high, and the lengths that the characters will go to achieve their goals are a little scary,” said Megan. “I, for one, see that in D.C. politics, and so these characters, particularly Regina, but also her two brothers, Oscar and Ben, are very recognizable at any time in Washington. There’s a lot of humanity underneath this grasping for power, but at a certain point the emotional depth becomes subverted.”
Zan becomes the moral core of the play. “Alexandra is 17 and she’s trying to find who she is in the maelstrom of family dysfunction,” Megan said. “She becomes caught between her mother and her father who have opposing ideas about what should happen with the family business and to the family itself. And in the end she makes a choice for her own future that also means rejecting a lot of who she has been up to that point.”
Megan said that she read Hellman’s The Children’s Hour in college, but wasn’t as familiar with The Little Foxes. “I didn’t realize until I auditioned how autobiographical [the play] was,” she said. “We have a great dramaturgical team helping us and the information they are giving us is so incredibly informative. I was able to read interviews that Lillian Hellman gave about the play, what she intended, and what audiences take from the play and how those two things aren’t always in synch. I found that fascinating.”
The mother-daughter relationship is an important theme in the play. “Alexandra really craves her mother’s affection and approval,” Megan said. “The tricky thing is that she also has a very strong sense of right and wrong and at a certain point trying to please her mother and trying to do what’s right aren’t one and the same any more. So there’s a huge conflict for her when she has to choose between what she sees as doing the right thing and doing what her mother asks. That’s what really starts the journey towards growing up.”
Megan was born in Mesa, Arizona, just outside of Phoenix. Homeschooled through high school, she received her BFA from the Shenandoah Conservatory, in Winchester, Virginia. After enjoying Shakespeare in high school, Megan thought she would become a writer. That all changed in college when she began doing local theater in northern Virginia.
She has become a familiar presence for theatergoers in the D.C. area, having appeared in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Folger Theatre, Passion Play and Clementine in the Lower 9 at Forum Theatre, and several productions at Imagination Stage in Bethesda, including The BFG, winning a Helen Hayes Award.
Does she have a favorite? “That’s tough,” she said. “I had a great time doing Midsummer NIght’s Dream at Folger this spring. That was just a lovely group of people and a really joyful interpretation of the play that was just so refreshing and wonderful to do every night. I have to say I have a very warm place in my heart for Passion Play which I did at Forum Theater last year. That was probably the production that has changed how I look at theater.”
Megan said she feels lucky to be part of the cast for Arena’s production. “It’s like a master class in the rehearsals every day,” she said. “Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m in the scene; I can’t just watch. It’s so incredible.”
She feels very fortunate to be working with Helgenberger (above), who won an Emmy Award for playing K.C. Koloski in China Beach, which ran on ABC from 1988 to 1991, and is most identified with her long-running role as Catherine Willows on CBS’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Helgenberger’s film credits include Erin Brockovich.
Helgenberger, Maegan said, “is lovely; she’s so giving and kind. We’ve had some good conversations about what the relationship is like [between Regina and Zan] and she’s game to try things. I was amazed at how transformative she is. She’s Regina. She has really taken this role on. The only thing I think about when I watch her work is how thoroughly she has stepped into this piece.”
Stepping into the characters also involves stepping into the dresses that women wore during the play’s time period. “There’s something about being laced into a corset that immediately transports you to the time,” she said. “I can’t slouch anymore; that 20-something slouching girl is gone and I have this incredible posture. It informs the character so much and layer on top of that the beautiful clothes that our designer [Jess Goldstein], unveils, it really helps to make the character come to life. l can’t wait to get all the costumes and get on stage and work with all of that.”
Megan hopes that the play’s themes will resonate with audiences, particularly through her character, Zan. “This play is really about power – who has it, who is trying to get it – manifested through wealth,” she said. “Those who decide in the end to reject that, is a commentary on the choices that people make. In the play there’s a statement about family versus power and choosing one or the other. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of neutral ground at least in this play as far as maintaining that control and also maintaining that family bond. For some it’s simple and for others like Zan, it’s very complicated.”
The Little Foxes Written by Lillian Hellman Directed by Kyle Donnelly Arena Stage 1101 Sixth Street SW 202-488-3300
Avoiding talk about religion and politics is prudent, particularly during a dinner party like the one we see in Disgraced that brings together four friends from very different ethnic and religious backgrounds. The setting is an upscale apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a balcony providing a spectacular view of the Chrysler building. Amir Kapoor (Nehal Joshi) is a corporate lawyer at a major firm who specializes in the lucrative work of mergers and acquisitions. His wife, Emily (Ivy Vahanian), is an artist whose career is about to take off. The dinner guests include Isaac (Joe Isenberg), a Jewish curator who is helping Emily with a new show, and his African-American wife, Jory (Felicia Curry), a fellow associate at Amir’s firm. The evening begins on a civil note, but before the main course is served, tempers flare, accusations fly, and violence erupts.
Ayad Akhtar has written a play for our times, one that delves into topics that most of us think about but rarely dare to voice our opinions upon. After seeing this play, chances are conversations will follow. And in our current political climate, that’s not a bad thing. Disgraced, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama, is the most-produced play of the 2015/16 theater season. Akhtar, a novelist and screenwriter, has obviously touched a nerve about what it means to be an American and if assimilation, particularly for Muslims, is ever really possible.
Samir Raval and Nehal Joshi
Amir and Emily are an odd couple, and not just because of the differences in their backgrounds. He was born in Pakistan and raised as a Muslim. But with his feet firmly planted in America, he’s left his religion behind, deriding Islam as an ancient religion out of place in the modern world. Emily is obviously American and not Muslim. However, she tends to romanticize Islam and even uses Islamic images in her artwork. (The set design includes one of Emily’s paintings over the fireplace.) Amir’s nephew, Abe Jensen (Samip Raval), is similarly conflicted about his origins, having changed his name after being born Hussein Malik. Yet Abe is determined to help an iman who has been arrested and asks Amir to help. Amir initially refuses, but when pressured by Emily, agrees. Although Amir doesn’t actually represent the iman, his name winds up in the newspapers, exposure that will damage his position at his firm.
The evening of the dinner party, Isaac arrives a half hour early, followed shortly by Jory. While Emily rushes to get dressed, Amir, after rudely admonishing Isaac for arriving ahead of schedule, grudgingly pours drinks and attempts to entertain his guests. The mixup in timing is the first indication that things are about to go awry.
Conversation over the fennel and anchovy salad begins innocently enough, but when talk turns to Amir’s involvement with the iman’s case, the discussion grows more heated. Akhtar’s dialogue is, at times, searing. The playwright has talked about how his own struggle with his identity, ethnically and religiously, inspired the play. While Amir has made accommodations to be accepted and succeed in mainstream America, when challenged, he finds himself defending Islam even excusing acts of violence, a moment which produced gasps from the audience.
Joe Isenberg,Felicia Curry, Ivy Vahanian, and Nehal Joshi
The other explosions have less to do with identity and more to do with the typical conflicts that erupt when hard-driving professionals compete for success in the board room and the bedroom. Amir receives bad news on both fronts. How much his cultural struggles contribute to the outcome becomes less important than how he will move ahead.
Arena Stage’s production benefits from strong direction by Timothy Douglas who also directed Arena’s King Hedley II. Confrontations between the actors, both verbal and physical, are staged for maximum effect. Pacing is impressive. At 90 minutes with no intermission, the action never flags and when the lights go down, the audience is left breathless.
The four actors are up to the challenges. As Amir, Joshi displays an impressive range, from a hard-hitting attorney at the top of his game, to someone who sees his dreams crash and burn. Emotions are conveyed, not only with facial expressions, but with body language. In the beginning he seems puffed up by his own importance; by the end, he seems deflated.
Vahanian goes toe-to-toe with Joshi, never backing down even when faced with her own wrong-doing. We watch her transformation from loving, idealistic wife, to a woman who can stand on her own and no longer needs to define herself as part of a multi-ethnic couple.
I found Curry’s performance most powerful. Her time on stage was less than the other actors, but she left such a strong impression that her absence was immediately felt. Isenberg’s character came off as the least likable, someone who was ready to cross even those closest to him in order to achieve his goals. As Abe/Hussein, Raval’s performance was telling, reflecting the conflict felt by so many young Muslim men who struggle to fit into a society that often targets them.
Set Designer Tony Cisek has created the quintessential Manhattan apartment for urban professionals. Even before Amir and Emily begin their first conversation, we understand their aspirations and life-style. Costumes by Toni-Leslie James are perfect, while lighting by Michael Gilliam and original compositions by sound designer Fitz Patton take us from scene to scene and heighten the emotional impact.
Disgraced is a provocative evening of theater. Don’t miss it.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography Opening: Left to right, Joe Isenberg, Nehal Joshi, Ivy Vahanian and Felicia Curry
Disgraced Arena Stage 1101 Sixth Street SW 202-554-9066