BWW Reviews: Feehely's Exquisite OUTSIDE PARADISE Given World Premiere by Actors Bridge and Belmont
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by Jeffrey Ellis
In his lifetime, F. Scott Fitzgerald never quite gained the critical or popular acclaim he always thought was due him—in fact, many considered him to be not much more than a hack, certainly more of a celebrity than a literary lion. Vilified as a dilettante, a wastrel, a poseur, it took his untimely death (and the fortuitous World War II distribution of the book that many consider his masterpiece) to earn his place in the pantheon of great American writers.
But, for all his failings and apparent shortcomings (Ernest Hemingway’s assertions notwithstanding, heterosexual men are relatively uninformed about the relative size of another man’s penis), the man who coined the terms “Jazz Age” and “flapper”—and who, with his capricious, beautiful and mad wife Zelda, personified the era that he most often wrote about in his thinly veiled fictional accounts of their life together—is one of the most fascinating figures in American literature. And now, thanks to the exquisitely crafted and wonderfully creative Outside Paradise, a new play written by Bill Feehely and given an opulent world premiere production from Actors Bridge Ensemble, the story of these two tragic figures is brought to life onstage.
Played with self-assured confidence and thorough commitment by Clay Steakley and Jennifer Richmond, Scott and Zelda are the leading characters in a cleverly plotted, richly drawn play that arrives on the Black Box Stage at Belmont University via a focused production that is imaginatively staged, perfectly capturing the charismatic pair amid the trappings of the riotously roaring ‘20s that they exemplified. The superb performances of Steakley and Richmond are made all the more impressive by the work of director/playwright Feehely’s ensemble of young actors who surround them, playing the characters—both real and fictional—who surrounded the gilded Fitzgeralds throughout their travels and amid all their travails.
Feehely’s play opens in 1940, just before Fitzgerald suffers the heart attack that would ultimately take his life. Looked after by his lover Sheilah Graham (Ashley Glore, who looks the very picture in my mind’s eye of The Great Gatsby’s Jordan Baker, even if her character’s name is misspelled in the show’s playbill), he was in Hollywood, attempting to sell film scripts to the very people he hated and derided behind their backs. An alcoholic from an early age—he claimed to be tubercular, a fact that still is debated by experts and biographers—he drank himself to an early death while his beloved Zelda wasted away in an Asheville, North Carolina, loony bin where she would die in a fire in 1948, the victim of her own mental and emotional instability just as certainly as she was of fire and neglect.
Using his artistic license to incorporate a character from The Great Gatsby into his play—the book’s central figure of Nick Carraway, the ambitious young man who is drawn into Jay Gatsby’s rarefied orbit, here played by an earnest D.J. Clark (Why does Nick sport a fraternity pin on his argyle sweater? Save for re-reading The Great Gatsby to determine if the character wears one in those pages, I’m uncertain. If he doesn’t, Clark needs to rid himself of the distracting geegaw)—Feehely gives his audience entre into the shadowy, otherworldly place where Scott marks time until his passage into the afterlife, examining events and litigating truths and falsehoods that defined his existence, like so much flotsam and jetsam, throughout the 44 years of his life on earth.
Feehely uses this dramatic convention to introduce us to Zelda, whose high-flying adventures and sense of joie de vivre attract Scott with an undeniable certainty reserved only for the charming and the clever, the witty and the smart, the beautiful and the damned (to so egregiously ape the name of another Fitzgerald literary conundrum—is The Beautiful and Damned masterpiece or solipsistic trash?). By illustrating Scott and Zelda’s self-absorbed and vainglorious life so vividly, Feehely shows us their flaws all done up in satins and silks, as colorful as the starched shirts Daisy Buchanan spies in Jay Gatsby’s chifferobe. The playwright avoids any excess theatricality, however, instead he uses it to great effect to more accurately reflect the decadence of that American decade leading up to the Crash of 1929.
The star-crossed lovers had met at a Montgomery, Alabama, country club where Scott had been posted when he joined the U.S. Army during The Great War, attempting to add physical heft and bravery to his list of easily discernible traits (such as being quick-witted, light on his feet and able to romance the most beautiful debutantes of the time). Zelda, a zany and madcap Southern belle—everyone in Montgomery thought her the most talented girl in town, she was quick to proclaim—whose very existence seemed defined by her lack of decorum, just as certainly as it was represented by her frequent lack of panties, was his greatest conquest and his most daunting project. How could a promising, but heretofore unchallenged, Yankee boy hope to win the heart of a beauty with corn-colored hair?
As different as an aristocratic young Southern woman and a precociously, preternaturally talented Yankee boy could possibly be, Zelda and Scott were drawn to each other like moths to a flame, like a starving person to a groaning board laden with delicacies, like a drunk hungering for a drink of hooch. No wonder, then, that Feehely was so captivated by their story that he would put pen to paper to create a play that would do them justice. And, make no mistake about it, that is exactly what the playwright achieves with Outside Paradise.
Scott’s love of florid prose and colorful discourse is palpable throughout Feehely’s surprisingly well-edited script (perhaps he was visited by the ghost of Maxwell Perkins—here played by Ricardo Andres Puerta, quite possibly the best looking man to be found on a Nashville stage) that brings the whole story, which features characters as far-ranging as Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein (played by the versatile Luke Hatmaker and the remarkably poised Adrienne Hall), Scott’s vapid and vacuous, uptight and upright Catholic parents (Hatmaker is his something-of-a-milquetoast father and the luminous Kallen Prosterman is his doting, if rather smothering, overprotective mother).
Glore, Hall and Prosterman play a trio of young flappers who, over the course of the play, portray all the various and sundry women who come in and out of the lives of both Scott and Zelda, while Hatmaker and Puerta enact all the men’s roles. Which leaves only Steakley, Richmond and Clark to each assay one character, allowing them more opportunity to craft performances that are more fully dimensional and, in turn, more believable and even accessible, despite the high-toned, upper crust avarice, greed and abandon with which their characters dance their seductive tango with life—real, after a fashion, for Scott and Zelda ; imaginary, of course, for Nick Carraway.
Throughout the course of Feehely’s 90-minute play (it is presented sans interval, as the British are wont to say), Steakley completely cloaks himself in the personage of Scott Fitzgerald (did you know he was named after his second cousin, thrice removed Francis Scott Key, the composer of our national anthem?), effectively playing the writer with such grace and, quite frankly, grit that you forget you are watching a performance and instead you find yourself completely enraptured by a man’s life playing out onstage before you. So sublimely does Steakley inhabit Fitzgerald—or perhaps it is the other way around—that you believe everything written by Feehely (who also lifts some of Fitzgerald’s best-known writing for his own edifying purposes), making the whole experience all the more entertaining and elucidating.
Richmond is Steakley’s perfect mate—in fact, it’s difficult to imagine any other Nashville actress up to the challenge of this script or her character’s legend—and she matches his intensity with a beautifully delivered performance that once again proves her unparalleled in her total deference to the woman she is playing onstage. Her performance would be considered revelatory if Richmond hadn’t already proven her range and put tremendous talent on display so effectively already. Her Zelda Sayre in Outside Paradise cannot be more completely different from her character of Maybelline in Nate Eppler’s Long Way Down, but Richmond’s portrayal of the headstrong Southern belle replicates the actress’ ferocity with an alarming zeal that would be overacting by an actress of lesser skill.
Feehely’s coterie of young actors—Clark, Puerta, Hatmaker, Prosterman, Hall and Glore—also rise to the challenge of presenting the world premiere of what could possibly become a very impressive literary achievement, carrying the weight of such an honor with much dignity.
While Feehely’s script provides the structure for the production, the design aesthetic for Outside Paradise—so extraordinarily realized by lighting designer Richard Davis (who brings a kaleidoscope of colors to the stage through his almost ethereal lighting), set designer Bekah Reimer (who creates a gorgeously appointed Art Deco setting for the play) and costume designer Jessica Mueller (her period fashions, using a palate of creams and tans, is only weakened by the appearance of character pumps on the feet of many of the actresses).
The wonderfully evocative music design and direction of Kim Bretton and Celeste Krenz provides a musical score that so effectively captures the tone of the period after 1920 and up to and including 1940. The musical selections are certain to whisk you away to the Jazz Age and to envelop you in the still compelling vicissitudes of the Roaring ‘20s and beyond. Alyssa Maddox’s choreography adds to the overall feel of the production, set as it is to the tunes of some of the period’s best known songs, while Rebekah Hampton’s aerial choreography gives the show a sense of adventure only possible through flight.
Outside Paradise, the play’s very title is another example of wordplay involving another Fitzgerald (he always prided himself on the titles he gave his works, even if he didn’t exactly cotton to The Great Gatsby, as legend would have it) tome—This Side of Paradise—continues onstage at Belmont University (this is Actors Bridge Ensemble’s annual co-production with the university’s department of theatre and dance) through next weekend. You really should see it and give yourself over to the excesses of the 1920s and the story of a young man and the girl with whom he fell madly, passionately in love.