OUR LEADING LADY theatre review

Theatre Jacksonville opened the March show of its 90th season, with the North Florida premier of Charles Busch‘s Our Leading Lady. This comedy/drama will run through March 20th at the Harold K. Smith Playhouse at 2032 San Marco. Call 396-4425 for information and reservations.
This may be one of the most unusual plays you will ever see. Why? The first act is a comedy that borders on farce. And while the first part of the second act is very serious, the play ends with humor. Not such a surprise if you have ever experienced any of the previous works by playwright Charles Busch. The two that have played in Jacksonville include Psycho Beach Party (Players by the Sea), and Die, Mommie, Die (First Coast Theatre Arts).
The play is set in 1865 in Washington DC as the Civil War is coming to a close. At the famous Ford’s Theatre, the company of Laura Keene, a British-born actress, is presenting Our American Cousin by playwright Tom Taylor. The hilarious first act concerns Ms. Keene’s quest for fame, glory, and power by supplanting the management of the theatre. She must first convince President Abraham Lincoln to attend her final performance, which unfortunately is the fateful evening he was killed by Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth.
In Act II, Lincoln is shot, and Ms. Keene dramatically describes trying to administer comfort to him before he is taken to a nearby boarding house. The final scene of the show reverts back to a lighter atmosphere and I will let you learn the interesting details when you see the play.
Award winning actor and director Michael Lipp has assembled an outstanding ensemble of actors for this show, and I can see why these talented performers were attracted to the show. All the roles are juicy and each character has a unique prospective.
Stacy Williams, fresh from playing the leading role in the original musical Aussie Song at Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre (ABET), is the young ingénue of the company who has a drinking problem and lacks acting talent, if we are to believe her boss, Laura Keene.
David Paul starred with Ms. Williams playing her husband in Aussie Song. In Our Leading Lady, Mr. Paul is the handsome leading man Harry Hawk, who is Ms. Keene’s secret romantic interest and never without his seemingly bottomless silver flask of whiskey.
Sandy Spruney keeps topping herself in what she describes in the program as quintessential eccentric parts on stage. She certainly is hilarious as old Maude Bentley who has been acting for sixty years and fears she may be forced out of acting and will have to turn to prostitution, the only recourse she can identify. She tends to forget which play she is doing and can’t tell the difference between Camille and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A very funny lady indeed is Ms. Spurney.
Brad Trowbridge has been very selective in the roles he performs and he has Best Actor trophies to prove he makes good choices. As character actor Gavin De Chamblay, he is chivalrous to a fault, skillfully hiding his sexual peccadilloes from his wife and cast members, but finding ways to let the audience in on his other interests. Mr. Trowbridge can say more with a raised eyebrow and sly smile than any actor I have ever seen.
One of the most interesting characters was played by Toni Philips as Madame Wu-Chan, an Afro-American runaway slave pretending to be a Chinese maid who has been a servant to Ms. Keene for several years. Ms. Philips was excellent in the role that was not only humorous but poignant as well.
Scott Peeler is Major Hopwood, the US Army officer who interrogates all the actors the day after the assassination. Mr. Peeler’s approach is very professional in the only role that is not a comic one, as he tries to deal with a room full of eccentric actors and actresses.
What is as exciting to us as seeing a new play performed on local stages is to see brand new actors on stage for the first time in our community theatres, augmenting the very fine contingent of talented actors we already have in theatre. Three of the cast made their community theatre debuts with this show. Joshua Kreis McTiernan was W. J. Ferguson, the call boy/understudy with religious fervor and his own little secret. Nancy Devin Morgan played Verbena De Chamblay, a bitter Southern Belle married to Gavin, and very much a suspect for the murder of Lincoln. Ms. Morgan recently relocated to Jacksonville from Tampa and has an impressive resume, with productions from Miami to the Panhandle.
Playing the very demanding leading role of Laura Keene is MaryBeth Antoinette, also a recent arrival in our city. Her performance is marvelous, capturing all the comedic moments to perfection. She is very capable in serious roles as well, as she proves with her moving account of going to Lincoln’s side after he was shot. She too has long and impressive lists of credits. She was selected as Best Actress in a Musical as well as Best Actress in Drama by Sarasota Magazine. We spent a week last summer seeing theatre in Sarasota, and it is a marvelous theatre city, with lots of fine theatres that are well supported and that attract some top-notch talent.
Michael Lipp’s direction is superb, bringing out all the charm of the quirky characters that Mr. Busch has created. (Actually Laura Keene was indeed an actual person, but as far as I can ascertain the rest of the people in the troupe were fictional). The projection by all the cast was the best this season and I heard several remarks about this during the intermission.
The costumes by Tracy Olin reflected the full extravagance of the Victorian era, with bright colors in satin, ruffles, pleats, laces, and wide hoop skirts. Mourning dresses, that enveloped two of the actresses in black after the assassination, were also striking.
The sets and lightning design by Kelly and Jeffery Wagoner allowed rapid transitions from one setting to another, and included touches such as ladderback chairs, wallpaper prints and silhouettes that were based on the interiors of the era.
I understand that more books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than any other American, so there are a lot of history buffs who would truly enjoy this show as we did. It is certainly unique, combining American theatre with American history. We predict a long life for this play because of the subject but mainly it has a most interesting set of characters.
A side note. Theatre Jacksonville started in 1919, and so did the Cabot Cheese Company and they are going to partner with TJ for the remainder of the reason to celebrate their 90 years of longevity. As a result, at the opening night reception, Cabot cheeses were served and we can expect more for the same at the remaining opening nights of this season at Theatre Jacksonville. Thanks Cabot for your support of community theatre.