Waiting in the Wings
We are very much in the proper hands in this piece, directed by Steve Callahan, though you can almost hear him urging his fourteen actresses (and four actors) before the show, "keep up the pace, or we'll be here till midnight!" If that actually happens, it explains why the play seems to come rushing into your arms for the first ten minutes or so, creating a slight feeling of onslaught, before you've quite put down your program and your car keys. Things settle down to a more English stateliness after that, and by the time the outstanding Liz Hopefl (in a gray wig and age make-up) makes her entrance, as the newest resident of a home for old actresses, you're gladly in it for the long haul. Eleanor Mullin is nearly implacable as an old rival in love, and the two have some good, bruised scenes together, to give Mr. Coward's writing a sense of purpose. Much later, a good, awkward scene with one of the children also gives a pro forma sense of narrative structure to an otherwise whimsical piece from 1958.
Every time I see the beloved actress Dorothy Farmer Davis take to the stage, I feel I must write something like a eulogy , for, lately, I always fear she might hang it up forever after this next closing night. But she's unexpectedly, deviously hilarious here, with her patented hop-skip across stage, even though she's not terribly much younger than her real-life husband, who's just turned 82. I know I ought to ask her age one of these days, but I just can't quite bring myself to do it. It sends the wrong message, doesn't it? Especially when she's still one of the most electric performers in this large cast of expert entertainers, remembering her first love, or her first fascination with an open flame.
Jane Abling, as Ms. Hoepfl's on-stage daughter, is beautifully guilt-ridden at giving away her mother, simultaneously making her the most forlorn of brides-to-be. And Diane Peterson and Sally Eaton, in constant demand as real-life actresses, are funny and endearling merely as wraiths on the edges of the action. Suzanne Greenwald, who technically could be Ms. Hopefl's mother, at least in terms of actual age, and rich mental and artistic gifts, wobbles around as if she desperately needed a new hip; at one point delivering a wicked (but obscure) line to tweak the nose of the post-war critic Kenneth Tynan, for his reviews' annoying forays into French. Mr. Coward gets his revenge against a critic but, as with the myriad smoldering grievances of these ancient ingénues, it seems the rest of the world has busily moved on.
That's probably the most obscure, inside-theater joke here (that dig at Tynan) and it's sensibly thrown-away. But there are several other very funny backstage references that get served up and smacked right out of the park, by Ms. Davis and others. Likewise, when the old gals finally get to warbling old love songs all together, there's a deliriously sentimental feeling that rejuvenates them, the play and us - utterly transforming the entire event. We take the long way around to get there, as your wristwatch will tell you. But to end up in a land that time forgot (if only during these few musical minutes), surrounded by these great mythical creatures, is surely worth the wait.
Tamara Kenny is ultra-stylish and classy as a prowling feature-writer, and Lynn Rathbone is commanding and absurd as an Irish grand dame, and satirically hilarious pondering the long shadows of death, and the many wrongs of the world. Jan Meyer and Cindy Duggan, who never fail to delight, are gracious and glamorous, even if they're just the parsley on the plate here. And Teresa Doggett, as the major domo, is pleasantly winsome and blustery by turns. Tim Grumich, Charlie Heuvelman, John Reidy and Bruce Collins fill their various roles as stock male characters, with warmth and aplomb. Mr. Grumich himself becomes one of those mythical creatures as well: a superintendant of the home, who obviously cares too much about his residents for his own mental health. But he manages the task with complete conviction and youthful charm.
Through July 5th, including a holiday performance, in the black box theater of Fontbonne University on Big Bend Blvd., a half block south of Forsythe Blvd. For information call (314) 725-9108, or visit them on-line at www.actinc.biz.
Photo by John C. Lamb