Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Daddy Long Legs
Ms. Theby Quinn plays Jerusha Abbot, the oldest girl at an orphans asylum in New York City in 1908. Mysterious benefactor Jervis Pendleton, played by stoic Terry Barber, intervenes to send Jerusha to a girls' college, utterly transforming her life. But in signing his name to this decree, as "John Smith," he insists that the two must never meet, and that he will never write to her, though she must write him once a month to report on her scholarly progress. Inevitably, over the two hour and thirty-five minute play, they fall in love.
I think I've probably met Ms. Theby Quinn at least once in person. But I see her posts on social media fairly often, and that's how I know that she recently earned a master's degree in theologywhich seems to help the story in its quasi-religious overtones in the second half of act one. There, Jerusha's letters to "Mr. Smith" turn from innocent and hopeful to angry and doubting and accusatory, like an impatient convert to some major religionfirst rhapsodic, but later exasperated. It's pure devotion and girlish enthusiasmand every outraged opposite of that soon after. This was perceivable in the Rep's 2012 staging, but it's absolutely palpable here.
And yet, this is also a much more lighthearted version, in a warmer, more intimate setting, where the tension over real vs. imaginary boyfriends boils over. The main thing, however, is that Ms. Theby Quinn is one of the funniest women I've ever seen on stage, which adds crackle and verve to every moment. That's a good thing, because we follow her Jerusha and Mr. Barber's Jervis through nearly every single stage of Jerusha's development toward adult completion.
Maggie Ryan directs, but the whole experience seemed like a bit of a nightmare for Mr. Barber on opening night, not just because of the challenges of the story, but also due to certain decisions made behind the scenes. Two or three times, he has to skirt behind a full-sized desk and a monstrous office chair on a smallish office set, up there on a book-lined platform behind the main playing area. If it's any consolation, the Jervis in the Rep's 2012 version also had a dicey moment or two navigating his way on the set on that show's opening night.
Perhaps the whole concept of Daddy Long Legs is antagonistic to the presence of a leading man. On top of everything else (literally), Mr. Barber's smallish hat and blow-dried character wig never quite reconcile atop his head (there are two or three jokes about how much Jerusha dislikes male-pattern baldness). So for all those reasons, on this particular night, he did seem a bit stampeded in act one. But, like Ms. Theby Quinn, he sings beautifully. And he has an almost Russian countenance, something that helps sell his brooding character, which is literally in the background most of the time. (I look forward to seeing him out front, when he returns to St. Louis in July as Freddie Mercury at the Grandel Theatre, for a one-night show as the front man for Queen.)
But critics must criticize. Regarding the lead role, in some future production, perhaps the unquiet mind of the young Jerusha will be explored in greater detail, as the song lyrics make such a big deal of her final discovery of psychological peacefulness when we get to act two. And, while we're at it, playwright Caird really needs to get back in there and cut his script by at least 30 minutes.
Still, I can't emphasize enough how rich every moment is in Ms. Theby Quinn's performance, especially in her songs, which begin and end seamlessly within the story, backed-up by Scott Schoonover's three-piece band. There are references to Jane Eyre and Great Expectations. But it all reminds me of The Belle of Amherst, the old Julie Harris tour de force directed by Charles Nelson Reilly: a young woman, bursting to realize herself in every way and eagerly plunging off a dozen emotional cliffs, as she declaims about everything around her. Even if Daddy Long Legs ran to three hours, I suspect this 21st century actress would find a way to sculpt an entirely new Grand Canyon out of her character, in just that one additional half hour. It is undeniably her own tour de force.
Daddy Long Legs, through April 14, 2019, Insight Theatre Company, Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive (about three blocks east of Powell Symphony Hall), St. Louis MO. The theater has its own guarded, lit, enclosed parking lot. For more information visit www.insighttheatrecompany.com.
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association