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American Century Theater The Country Girl

By • Sep 15th, 2011 • Category: Reviews
The Country Girl by Clifford Odets
American Century Theater
Gunston Arts Center, Arlington, VA
Through October 8th
2:30 with one intermission
$27-$35, under 18 free with paying adult, discounts for students, seniors and military
Reviewed September 14th, 2011

Theater about theater is OK for theater aficionados — which means, what? That such plays might be of interest to the approximately nine per cent of the US population that actually goes to live theater. Drama about addiction is something else. It can speak to the, what? The approximately 100 percent of the population that is or was addicted to something or other, or that knows someone who is or was at addict.

Clifford Odets’ 1950 drama The Country Girl is unsurprising as theater about theater. It has all the stock characters found in Light Up the Sky or It’s Only a Play or The Fabulous Invalid or any of the dozens of plays about playmakers. There’s the insecure aging actor, the manipulative director, the meddlesome wife, the addled playwright, the anxious ingĂ©nue and the crass producer. What gives Odets’ Country Girl more than novelty interest, however, is its knowing dramatization of dynamics with which we’re all familiar: the addict and the co-addict, the enabler and the enabled, the lapse and the relapse, the sinner and the savior, the slip and the fall, the blamer and the blamed, the grandiosity and the shame, the truth and the lies — and the notion that this time it will be different, this time love or harsh words (or something) will triumph over that craving for oblivion.

The current American Century Theater production of The Country Girl scrupulously documents the curiosities of stage life. Director Steven Scott Mazzola gives a snappy account that stretches from the unreassuring audition through the unnerving rehearsals and concludes with the triumphant Broadway opening night. Odets takes as his text the case of Laurette Taylor, the apparently washed up, booze dependent aging actress who in 1944 was recruited, in a daring act of faith, to play Amanda Wingfield, the lead character in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Regarding this casting choice, the word — or the words — on the street among wise guys and gals was “Oh No! Disaster Alert!! Money down the drain!!! She’ll never be able to bring it off!!!! Once a lush, always a lush!!!!!” Then came the reviews, unstinting in their use of “incandescent” and “luminescent” in their descriptions of Taylor’s triumphal performance. So much for ghoulish, cynical wise guys and gals.

And so on and so forth — all of which is theater about theater, OK if you’re into that sort of thing. The Country Girl is no A Chorus Line when it comes to transforming parochial incidents into a universal parable.

Country Girl‘s interest lies mostly in the addiction issue and also in the play’s good parts for actors. The wiles and ways of addiction — alcoholism, in this case — provide manifold acting resources. This is where Mazzola’s production is truly engaging. Brian Crane gives an achingly detailed account of the washed-up actor, Frank Elgin. As Elgin, Crane is a scary mix of false good cheer, a mania for being liked, an unthinking flair for lies and a toxic mix of self-pity, blame shifting and irresponsibility. 

In the title role, Vanessa Bradchulis is a textbook co-dependent and enabler. She plays Frank’s wife — the buffer between Frank and unpleasant realities. She is the caretaker, the excuse maker, the mitigator of consequences, the go-between and the target for blame and reproach. To her credit, Bradchulis goes beyond addiction-studies typology. She displays a nice mix of steeliness and tenderness. She portrays courage without swagger when it comes to calling things by their right names. 

As the manipulative director, Kevin O’Reilly is not one to call things by their right name. He will call anything anything — just as long as it will get a desired result. Even his kisses are power plays. But O’Reilly also conveys an interesting loyalty to art. His character, Bernie Dodd, doesn’t just want proficient acting. He wants inspired, unpredictable performances, performances that might well go down in theater history as “luminous” or “incandescent.”

Odets apparently had some familiarity with the Alcoholics Anonymous approach to recovery. Now and then paraphrased references to such AA standbys as “one day at a time,” “first things first” or “you’re only as sick as your secrets” pop up in the course of The Country Girl. They make sense in terms of sobriety. 

Then there’s the play’s counter-melody, the subtext. Art, any art, is often the antithesis of sobriety. It’s fraught with thrill-seeking, highs and lows, ecstasy and agony. Odets (1906-63) was definitely not a preacher of or a practitioner of moderation. He indulged and overindulged. He had fits of remorse and shame. He not only knew the ins and outs of theater life. He was also well versed in the theory and practice of intoxication and repentance.

Photo Gallery

Kelsey Acers as Nancy, Kevin O'Reilly as Director Bernie Dodd, Vanessa Bradchulis as Georgie Elgin Kevin O'Reilly as Director Bernie Dodd and Brian Crane as Frank Elgin
Kelsey Acers as Nancy, Kevin O’Reilly as Director Bernie Dodd, Vanessa Bradchulis as Georgie Elgin
Kevin O’Reilly as Director Bernie Dodd and Brian Crane as Frank Elgin
Kevin O'Reilly as Director Bernie Dodd and Arturo Tolentino as Larry Christopher Holbert as Paul Unger, Steve Lebens as Phil Cook and Kevin O'Reilly as Bernie Dodd
Kevin O’Reilly as Director Bernie Dodd and Arturo Tolentino as Larry
Christopher Holbert as Paul Unger, Steve Lebens as Phil Cook and Kevin O’Reilly as Bernie Dodd
Vanessa Bradchulis as Georgie Elgin and Kevin O'Reilly as Bernie Dodd Vanessa Bradchulis as Georgie Elgin and Brian Crane as Frank Elgin
Vanessa Bradchulis as Georgie Elgin and Kevin O’Reilly as Bernie Dodd
Vanessa Bradchulis as Georgie Elgin and Brian Crane as Frank Elgin

Photos by Dennis Deloria

Cast

  • Bernie Dodd, a director: Kevin O’Reilly
  • Larry, a stage manager: Arturo Tolentino
  • Phil Cook, a producer: Steve Lebens
  • Paul Unger, a playwright: Christopher C. Holberts
  • Nancy Stoddard: Kelsey Acers
  • Frank Elgin: Brian Crane
  • Georgie Elgin: Vanessa Bradchulis

Production Staff

  • Director: Steven Scott Mazzola
  • Production Manager: Ian Millholland
  • Stage Manager: Ryan Breen
  • Costume Design: Dennis Kitmore
  • Set Design: Patrick Lord
  • Lighting Design: Marianne Meadows USA
  • Sound design: Edward Moser
  • Master Carpenter: Aly Geisler
  • Wardrobe Supervisor/Dresser: Alexandra Levesque
  • Board Operator: Greg Magee
  • Fight Choreographer: Steve Lada
  • House Managers: Kristin Pilgrim, Joli Provost, Eric Rutkin
  • Marketing Director: Emily Love Morrison
  • Marketing Intern: Jesse Cline
  • Production Photography: Dennis Deloria
  • Program Design: Michael Sherman

Disclaimer: The American Century Theater provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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lives in Arlington with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. Before retiring last year at age 70, he was theater critic at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for 27 years. Prior to that, he reviewed plays for the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Texas Observer and the Swarthmore College Phoenix. Non-reviewing journalistic jobs include writing for the Houston Chronicle, the San Juan (Puerto Rico) Star and El Mundo de San Juan. Think about it: most of the papers he worked for no longer exist. Maybe this internet gig has better longevity prospects.

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