Thursday, September 24, 2009

Southern Women in Crisis

Can't a Southern Belle catch a break? From Florence King's hilarious Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady to television's Designing Women, from Gone With the Wind's feisty Scarlett "Tomorrow Is Another Day" O'Hara to A Streetcar Named Desire's demented Blanche "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers" DuBois, Southern women are constantly struggling with unpleasant truths about life in the South.

Their men certainly don't make life any easier for them. If Congressman Joe Wilson isn't screaming "You lie!" at President Obama, Governor Mark Sanford is humiliating his wife with some cock and bull (but mostly cock) story about hiking the Appalachian Trail -- in Argentina! If playwrights like Tennessee Williams and novelists like Margaret Mitchell aren't placing their delirious damsels in distress or under extreme duress, Rachel Maddow is telling the whole world about how poorly Southern women have been treated by men who don't know nothin' about birthin' no babies.

When confronted by competition from another woman or an inconvenient truth, some Southern ladies have been known to react in wildly unpredictable ways. In Fried Green Tomatoes, Evelyn (Kathy Bates) loses her grip when a younger woman zips into the parking spot she had been aiming for. Using her car as a lethal weapon, Evelyn justifies her maniacal response by saying: "Face it, girls. I'm older and I have more insurance." One of Carol Burnett's most beloved comedy skits was this spoof of Gone With The Wind:

Two stage productions recently seen in San Francisco theaters showed how Southern women react to disturbing news. Each offered a multi-layered view of complex characters struggling with their emotions. Each begged the question of whether the South should ever be allowed to rise again.

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Directed by Mike Ward with a great deal of tenderness, Southern Railroad Company's production of Susan Jackson's Blessing Her Heart (recently seen at the 2009 San Francisco Fringe Festival) introduced audiences to three Southern women struggling to cope with the sad new realities in their lives. In Biss Ya! Jackson portrayed Mrs. Peallin, a resident of Charlotte, North Carolina whose cheating husband had started a second family in South Carolina ("below and beneath us") with a woman who had been able to give him sons instead of daughters. In between trying to calm her yappy little dog and a larger neighborhood mongrel, Peallin is trying to prevent a Vietnamese woman from scavenging empty bottles from her trash.

With the economy in tatters, Peallin needs the bottle refunds for herself (even though she has no idea where to find the local recycling center). Nor is she able to communicate with an Asian woman who is incapable of speaking English.

A humbling encounter with someone far needier than herself helps Peallin realize that what she needs most is some company, perhaps even a friend who can help to pull her out of her isolation. As is true in so many tales of the South, misery loves company.

Diana Brown, Adrienne Krug and Susan Jackson
Photo by: Stacy Marshall

In Blessed Ruby, Adrienne Krug offered a glowing portrait of a wheelchair-bound geriatric slipping into senility whose mind wanders back to the day when she sang on the same stage as Marian Anderson. Claiming that her hair turned naturally white while she was still in her twenties (and insisting that she is most definitely not wearing a wig), Ruby speaks to people from her past, including her now probably deceased husband.

Blessing Her Heart finds Red (Diana Brown) visiting her mother's newly-fresh grave in a local cemetery. As she "visits" with her mother's recently-departed spirit, Red apologizes for feeling relieved when her mother finally died, and discusses all the little white lies told by medical personnel who care for the terminally ill in an effort to soften the reality of the dying process for family members.

Jackson's triptych of tenderly-written character studies offers audiences a rare kind of simply staged intimacy that is refreshingly honest and genuinely touching, deriving its dramatic power from its quietest moments of soul searching as well as the strength of her script.

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No sooner had the San Francisco Fringe Festival closed than the curtain rose on the first stop of the 2009 national tour of South Pacific at the Golden Gate Theatre. There is much to celebrate in Bartlett Sher's new production of the beloved Rodgers & Hammerstein show, one of only seven musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama. But before dealing with the clarifications about race and prejudice in this new production, an important point needs to be discussed.

The media blitz for Lincoln Center Theatre's production of South Pacific (which opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre on April 3, 2008 to rave reviews) has been claiming that this is the first time the show has been seen on Broadway since the original production had its premiere on April 7, 1949 at the Majestic Theatre with a cast headed by Mary Martin as Nellie Forbush and Ezio Pinza as Emile de Becque (in that landmark production, Juanita Hall created the role of Bloody Mary while Myron McCormick appeared as the rowdy Luther Billis). Nothing could be further from the truth:
The claim that the current production of South Pacific marks the first time this musical has been seen on Broadway since the original production is little more than an entertainment lawyer's marketing wet dream based on the fact that the 2008 cast is working under standard Broadway run-of-show contracts. If anyone wants to get really pissy about this distinction, they can measure distances (Lincoln Center's New York State Theatre is physically closer to Broadway than the Vivian Beaumont Theatre).

What does make this production different has a lot more to do with which version of the show is being performed. As many opera fans are aware, how an opera is staged may depend on certain cuts made in the score by the composer, director, or producer for any number of reasons. Some coloratura sopranos have been known to substitute an alternate aria composed by Rossini when performing The Barber of Seville's "Lesson Scene" in Act II. Some performances of Gounod's Faust skip the Walpurgisnacht and ballet. I've even seen two productions of Aida that eliminated Verdi's famous Triumphal March!

In researching the original production of South Pacific, Bartlett Sher found one musical number ("My Girl Back Home") and several critical stretches of dialogue that had probably been cut from the original version prior to opening night in order to shorten the show's running time. Sher's research also revealed that, although the island in James Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning Tales of the South Pacific on which the musical takes place had many imported Tonkinese workers, there was a very dark-skinned local population as well.

Rod Gilfry, CJ Palma and Christina Carrera
(Photo by: Peter Coombs)

That knowledge allowed Sher to make a crucial change in casting: Instead of using lighter-skinned Asian children, in this production Ngana and Jerome (Emile de Becque's children from his previous marriage to a local woman) are so dark-skinned that when Little Rock's Nellie Forbush gasps "I had no idea they'd be colored!" she is expressing the kind of gut reaction that would be expected from a true daughter of the South if her white boyfriend had proudly introduced her to a Pickaninny who was, in fact his child.

According to Sheryl Flatow's program notes "When the show toured the South in the early 1950s, several Georgia legislators, offended by the lyrics' 'justification of interracial marriage' attempted to ban works that professed 'an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow.'" That kind of racial prejudice still exists in the South and is spreading like wildfire among Birthers.

Other artistic choices made by Sher include portraying Bloody Mary as a more sinister (rather than comic) figure and softening many stage entrances so that actors are no longer coming out of the wings along a rigid line parallel to the footlights. Originally designed for the Vivian Beaumont's wide, semi-thrust stage, Michael Yeargan's fluid unit set adds a genuine touch of beach-like terrain while Donald Holder's spectacular lighting goes a long way to give the production the truly exotic sunsets that frame Michener's story.

Keala Settle and Anderson Davis (Photo by: Peter Coombs)

While the national tour reaps huge benefits from Matthew Salvidar's Billis, Keala Settle's Bloody Mary, Anderson Davis's Joe Cable, and Sumie Maeda's silent, but rivetingly beautiful Liat, the core tensions driving the show's plot are the three atypical relationships: Lieutenant Joe Cable's passion for Liat, de Becque's former marriage to a Polynesian woman, and Nellie's attraction to an older man with multiracial children.

The dramatic strength of any production of South Pacific, however, rests on the shoulders of its two leads and, in the case of this national tour, the casting is nothing short of triumphant. Carmen Cusack delivered a vocally sound, delicately-layered Nellie who is at once naturally exuberant and beloved by all, yet visibly shaken by her conflicting emotions about the new love in her life. As de Becque, Rod Gilfry gave a sonorously masculine performance highlighted by a stunning rendition of "This Nearly Was Mine." There aren't too many Broadway scores that highlight a bass-baritone's assets and Gilfry (who has always been a solid dramatic performer in his operatic roles) made the most of his moments.

Carmen Cusack and Rod Gilfry (Photo by: Peter Coombs)

The famous Rodgers & Hammerstein songs remain surprisingly fresh and moving, although I have always wondered how a rural hick like Nellie would ever use an adjective like "bromidic." In a rare tribute to the beauty of Robert Russell Bennett's original orchestrations, the orchestra (under Lawrence Goldberg's baton), stood for a bow following the overture.

When was the last time you saw THAT happen at a Broadway show?

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