Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Red Door: "Fair and Tender Ladies"

Ever since its 1998 debut at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival with Greta Lambert as its central character Ivy Rowe, director Fiona Macleod has been enamored with Fair and Tender Ladies -- "a play with music"; now she takes full advantage of bringing it back to life at the Red Door Theatre.

Capitalizing on the Red Door's simple stage with its stunning sepia toned stained-glass window serving as a backdrop, with fine musical accompaniment throughout, and an excellent ensemble cast, the story of Ivy Rowe's [Anna Perry] life journey in the Appalachian hill country is given a sensitive and thought provoking rendering.

Eric Schmeidl's script, adapted from Lee Smith's evocative novel, covers some seventy of Ivy's years in this production's two-and-a-half hours. Some judicious editing and quicker scene changes might move the action more quickly, but the intentional leisurely pace adopted here gives appropriate attention to the shifting moods and atmospheres established by Ivy's history and the songs by Tommy Goldsmith, Tom House, and Karren Pell that are seamlessly integrated into the narrative and punctuate its celebration of a stalwart woman's survival. -- In lesser hands, the epic content of Ivy's story [family dysfunction, husbands, lovers, children and grandchildren, disease, war, death, et al.] might have read as cliche-ridden as a bad country western song. But here it just seems right.

Ms. Perry is effervescent as the young Ivy, and her gradual aging over the course of the play's two acts is subtly drawn without the aid of makeup by shifts of posture and facial expression. Ivy emerges as a complex woman, one who makes mistakes and does not make excuses for them. Though she is drawn to the larger world outside her mountain homeland, and dreams of being a writer, she has a certain amount of book knowledge, and much like Emily Dickinson travels far away through books and her own imagination while luxuriating in the rural landscape. And, also like Dickinson, uses simple language with such dexterity that she speaks with authority and poetic sensibility. Ms. Perry's vocal range meets the demands of the score, and she also brings an actor's sensibility to the lyrics so that she tells the story clearly. We imagine everything vividly through Ivy's memories.

Beth Egan and Kristin Hedges play multiple roles each -- Ivy's sisters, children, teachers, neighbors, et al. -- demonstrating skilled personifications of each as we see them differently at various times in Ivy's life. Good accomplished work here that demands full commitment to every individual, and the shifts of posture and voice [aided, of course, by costumes and wigs] make them credible, distinct, and recognizable over the range of time. We get attached to them too, as we do Ms. Perry's Ivy, and welcome them on their return.

A few other characters are played by the on-stage musicians, the stage manager Joseph Crawford, and even director Ms. Macleod in a touching cameo as Ivy's grandmother.

So much of this story is told through the songs, that it is a delight to the ear that the ensemble all have good voices. The instruments served them well, though there were several times that the opening attack of the singing was somewhat tentative. Once started, however, the songs took off and had a life of their own.

Fair and Tender Ladies continues the Red Door's commitment to producing plays with Southern themes; they do them well. This one is a celebration of a traditional heritage; one that is both familiar and exotic, nostalgic and with contemporary relevance, humorous and poignant, and a tribute to the strength of Southern women.