Quintessential Theatre Closes The Season With A Strong Performance Of Clifford Odet's Noir-ish 'Country Girl.'
By Dave Irwin
DESPITE HER protestations, the leading lady of Clifford Odet's The Country Girl is no bumpkin. Instead, Georgie Elgin is a street-smart, loyal wife living in hell with her alcoholic actor-husband. This taut, noir-ish '50s drama about life backstage is a perfect conclusion to a fine season by local Quintessential Productions.
Georgie, played by troupe founder Laura Ann Herman, is a complex psychological study of co-dependency (from a time before the word was invented). As well-honed as Herman's performance is, however, it's overshadowed by Tim A. Janes' exemplary rendition of the ne'er-do-well Frank Elgin, a potentially great actor and an incredibly lousy person. Close behind is David Ziemba as director Bernie Dodd, the character whose faith in Frank provides the catalyst for the story.
Under the direction of Brian Kearney, The Country Girl has real magic, an accomplishment all the more engrossing considering the story's darkness. Clifford Odet was the toast of Broadway in 1935. Not yet 30 years old, with four plays running on The Great White Way, he was being hailed as the successor to Eugene O'Neill. His highly political protest dramas, such as Waiting for Lefty and Paradise Lost, heightened social consciousness in the post-Depression era.
In 1936, Odet went to Hollywood and simply ended up toast. After his dismal experiences as a screenwriter, he wrote only three more plays, each more introspective and personal than his previous populist style. Only The Country Girl, which premiered in 1950, was well received. Odet died in 1963.
The constant pressure of time passing is a theme throughout The Country Girl. In a visual pun, the first scene takes place on a stage during rehearsals for a production set to open in three weeks. Dodd, producer Phyllis Cook (Bella Vivante) and playwright Paul Unger (Jon Campbell) are searching for a new lead for their play. Rounding out the cast of this play-within-a-play is leading lady Nancy Stoddard (Amelia Hileman) and stagehand Larry (Kearney, in a small inside joke on working in a community theatre). Dodd holds out for Frank Elgin, a washed-up alcoholic who hasn't worked in years. Frank fluffs the cold reading, then reaches inside himself and does a stunning job of improvisation, convincing them to take a chance.
Next we're in Frank and Georgie's shabbily furnished room, where she's packed and ready to leave him (again). This is our first glimpse of Frank's mercurial vacillations between confidence and despair. We learn more about the misery of Georgie and Frank's life together. When Dodd arrives to offer the job, Frank perks up and Georgie decides to stick with him. Ten days later, we're in rehearsals and the clock is ticking toward opening night.
As the rehearsals progress, Frank unravels and Dodd blames Georgie as a bitch who doesn't properly appreciate the talent of her man. That is, until he realizes that she is, in fact, the backbone of Frank's amorphous personality. Frank wrestles between competing roles as addict and actor, leaving the play with an ambiguous ending. Odet's dialogue is written in classic 1940s argot, which seriously dates the work and leaves you feeling the play should somehow be presented in black and white.
Herman plays Georgie with a Katherine Hepburn accent that further enhances the historic effect. Like a tough gal from the Golden Age of Hollywood, she stands up for, and to, her man with a take-no-prisoners resolve. She gives her character enough gentle edges and self-doubt to underscore that she's not as hard as she may appear. And Herman's on-stage instincts are fast. When a key line was flubbed on opening night, she mirrored the mistake to minimize the damage.
Ziemba makes Dodd a whirlwind of energy and ambition. His angular stance, quick moves and in-your-face swagger belie his character's hurt from a painful relationship with a woman of disturbing resemblance to Georgie. His interactions are based on bonding with Frank, and a sexual attraction/repulsion to Georgie. Ziemba, a former Santa Rita High School student, has also performed with Live Theatre Workshop.
Longtime local veteran Janes does a masterful job of portraying the nuances of an actor playing an actor. He disappears artfully into the complex and demanding role, which requires abrupt mood swings and no small amount of convincing self-deception. Most amazing is Janes' ability to actually moderate his size, increasing in stature as Frank goes into character, and literally shrinking into a chair when he's utterly humiliated. Janes, who has appeared primarily at Borderlands Theatre and the former a.k.a. Theatre, does an exceptional job in his debut with Quintessential.
And this has been Quintessential's strength over the past year: they've gone from a small, homegrown company to one whose quality and integrity is attracting interest from some of the community's best actors. There are still some technical difficulties, such as barely comfortable seating and patches of poor lighting at the edges of the stage; but the overall quality of the company's work has been consistently better than average, and at times excellent.
The Country Girl runs into problems with Odet's antiquated jargon and trite plot twists. But in the end, it inhabits that hazy-but-interesting place between the fedora-thinking of the '40s and the psychobabble of the '70s. And the acting is first rate.
The Country Girl, directed by Brian Kearney, continues through June 5 at Quintessential Theatre, 118 S. Fifth Ave. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 4 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $8 to $10, with discounts for students, seniors and military personnel. For reservations and information, call 798-0708.
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