"Everyone should go to the theater. Because it is there that we see the struggles of those we might otherwise misidentify as 'other.' It is there that we go to see ourselves." [Playwright Theresa Rebeck on the NYTimes Opinion page A17, Friday, October 15, 2021]
The opening night audience at the Cloverdale Playhouse clearly saw themselves represented on stage as they laughed, cried, applauded, and cheered throughout The Legend of Georgia McBride by Matthew Lopez, who made history in September as the first Latino to win in the "Best Play" Tony Award for The Inheritance.
Not so long ago, and before "Ru Paul's Drag Race" became mainstream, it would have been problematic in River Region theatres to feature actors in drag, or a loving mixed-race couple, but in ...Georgia McBride they are both depicted successfully and without editorial comment.
Casey [Jay Russell] is a down-on-his-luck Elvis impersonator at a Panama City, FL bar called "Cleo's". With overdue bills to pay, and impending eviction by landlord Jason [Michael Buchanan] for missing rent payments, and his African American wife Jo [Lavia Walker] announcing her pregnancy, Jason breaks the news to her that he has been fired from his Elvis gig by bar owner Eddie [Chris Roquemore], and relegated to bartender.
What he doesn't tell her is that Elvis has been replaced by a drag show featuring flamboyant Miss Tracy Mills [David Rowland] and her unreliable stage partner Rexy [John Selden]...and that he has been conscripted to join the show. -- Much to resolve in the two hours' traffic on the Cloverdale Playhouse stage.
Lopez's script has an improbable plot, underdeveloped characters, and several songs that are a lot of fun to watch though they do not otherwise contribute to the action, yet audiences get caught up in the show largely due to its exuberant performances, sensitive attention to significant social issues, some technical wizardry, and the spot-on direction by Eleanor Kerr Davis and Scott Page.
Davis and Page [sounds like a vaudeville double-act, doesn't it?] keep the action moving at a steady pace, finding a rhythmic mix of comedy, pathos, social insights, and dynamic lip-synched songs. -- J. Scott Grinstead again impresses us with a minimalist set design that evokes specific locations and utilizes a revolving stage for the first time at the Playhouse. -- Costumes by Ms. Davis and Beth Shephard and their team contrast working class characters with spectacular drag personae. -- David Rowland [wigs, make-up, choreography] adds a drag-professional standard that impacts the signal moments in the play; his alter-ego is, after all, the inimitable Chloe Von Trapp. -- This is a fine collaborative effort that supports the play's themes and the ensemble cast's many talents.
Each of the characters is on a journey of self-discovery and acceptance. -- Mr. Buchanan's good-old-boy Jason seems oblivious of others' needs at first, though he ultimately admits to a regretful decision he made in the past. -- As the narrator/emcee and tunnel-visioned bar owner, Mr. Roquemore is a delight as he slowly accepts both the economic impact of the drag show to his business as well as the "otherness" of the divas.
In her Playhouse debut, Ms. Walker delivers a quietly natural quality in Jo. If "quiet ones often go unnoticed", that is not so here. Ms. Walker is an "other" force to deal with when she discovers Casey's lies; it is his lack of trust in her that must be remedied, and she knows it. And, as much of the play emphasizes the importance of love of all sorts, she becomes the catalyst for it.
Mr. Selden's Rexy [full name Anorexia Nervosa; "It's Italian", she quips] bears the brunt of early derision as the bitchy drunkard; yet Rexy consistently returns from stupor to claim a place in the show, and in an Act II confessional provides the most compelling back-story of a violent teenage assault on someone who appeared as "other" to the perpetrators and that garners compassion. Indeed, "Drag is not for sissies."
The biggest journey of self-discovery resides in Mr. Russell's Casey, abetted by Miss Tracy Mills. -- Miss Tracy questions Casey's abilities as a drag performer, but recognizes his potential and determines to mentor him, exercising both maternal concern and realistic expectations. Whether delivering sassy repartee, or offering necessary advice to "find yourself and be true to it" or to "make fewer messes in your life", or performing several show-stopping numbers, Mr. Rowland's Miss Tracy is, in a word: dazzling!
Watching Casey's transformation under Miss Tracy's tutelage lets audiences into both the sense of "otherness" Casey feels when he first dons women's clothes, and the gradual comfort as he assumes the role of country music diva Georgia McBride. Mr. Russell inhabits the role so that audiences might share with him their own discomforts with "otherness" of any sort, and to be able to join with him and the entire cast at the Finale's rousing celebratory dance party.
At a time when intolerance and misunderstanding abound, when LGBTQ-bashing rears its ugly head all too often, when anyone perceived as "other" becomes a victim of hate crimes, when bias and prejudice are excused in the name of exercising one's rights, or when one refuses to listen to an "other" point of view, The Legend of Georgia McBride points the way to rectifying such issues as cast and audience join together to celebrate their unique differences and common humanity.