BWW Reviews: Treading on Broken Glass
To paraphrase what was asked in one of the most riveting plays I have seen to date, this is a question that each human beings asks him or herself often, depending on who we're talking about - sometimes yearly, sometimes daily: what more are we doing here than simply finding ways of passing the time? What, indeed, does a person do when life has forced her to ponder that purpose which should come naturally to every human soul? If at times it doesn't, and the circumstances of life become too much of a burden for one to live in peace any longer, from that unfortunate moment come the best stories that can be told. Although not very comforting to the people who are forced to experience these degrees of failure and sadness, any audience would be lucky to have the opportunity to share in the woe that befalls such individuals - to travel alongside a character who is spiraling downward before its very collective eye, yet nevertheless still manages to reinstate a sense of hope with each step taken.
As a result of one man's interest and dedication to the proper telling of actress Laurette Taylor's magnificent story, New York is now fortunate enough to own a piece of the treasure that is Steven Carl McCasland's What Was Lost.
Written and directed by McCasland and hereby added to the list of successful and praise-worthy Beautiful Soup Theater productions, which include a recent production of Liliom and the critically acclaimed Little Wars, What Was Lost is a complete surprise to both those familiar with the story of stage actress Laurette Taylor, and to those who have yet to understand the fortitude one woman can possess in the depths of her nearly shattered heart. It is truly one of my best experiences at the Dorothy Strelsin Theater.
McCasland seems absolutely fascinated by individuals who have struggled with the incessant agony which nags at them and persuades them to give in - that which tells them that there is nothing more that their damaged souls can do for the world. Laurette Taylor battled with such feelings, yet conquered them in time to regain that spark which made her, and allowed her to continue being, such a revered actress until the very end. Others, such as singer Billie Holiday, whose life harshly slipped through her fingers as she lived with demons which could never let her be, did not end so fortunately. As Beautiful Soup's productions of What Was Lost and Shades of Blue: The Decline and Fall of Billie Holiday are running in repertory, there is so much for the audience to take in, so great were these two women who, whether or not their respective battles in the end, never ceased to be beautiful.
Both of McCasland's plays are wonderful and incredibly unique because of how they dive full force into the struggles which made each woman, and thus show the absolute limits of each. Instead of using each play to boast of these individuals' talents and triumphs, McCasland craftily brings the audience in on stories already long in progress. By doing this, he takes how little or how much it knows of his characters' lives and manipulates it to the point where all one can do is relinquish the battle to anticipate, and choose simply to experience.
With Laurette Taylor's life, McCasland utilizes What Was Lost as a conduit through which to understand how such a talented actress, whose career spanned more than thirty years, could fall into such despair. This play about Taylor's struggle with and triumph over alcoholism portrays her as an actual person because of this burden she was forced to bear. McCasland portrays her simply as a human being, regardless of her fame and the way in which people acknowledged her as an influential actress of her day; in fact, the first impression the audience is given of this jaded actress is not a very good one. Taylor almost drags herself onto the stage, literally forcing herself to the search for the nearest seat so as not to collapse where she stands; she is completely bombed from the night before.
Is this a way to portray such a great actress of her time? Not exactly, which is why McCasland's directorial choices are so brilliant.
His characters are raw, simple human beings who desperately try to find their way in a world which seems paved for their success, but begins to crumble midway because of the detrimental choices they make to bring harm upon themselves. Even the greatest of us is not in control of their lives, which makes McCasland's plays so unpredictable and, essentially, wonderful to watch. Intense, undoubtedly, but real.
He captures the true essence of his characters to the extent that no one would ever dare doubt how essential it is for each to act the way she does - how utterly unchangeable such people as Laurette and Billie are, which makes his characters come to life and almost spring off of that stage with such vitality. This is not only because of casting choices, which I will get to in a moment. His characters are so valid, if that makes sense. It is actually quite difficult to explain the knack he has for creating characters based on the lives of those who actually existed once upon a time, but it is as though these characters are somehow different from those they are meant to portray - like they share a name, but are completely capable of standing on their own as unique individuals with unforeseen circumstances to which they are forced to react.
This essence that he captures makes their presence so known that each character thereafter - those who either help Laurette or Billie or aid in their gradual demise - feeds off that energy in order to bring about not a retelling of that individual's life, but a vibrant, live experience of the director's perspective of Taylor's life.
What Was Lost is a curious title for this production, yet how appropriate it becomes once Taylor's story is told to its very end. Yes, in more than a decade between her husband's death and her acceptance of the role of Amanda Wingfield in the original Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, her alcoholism became a major factor in the midst of a once successful career on the stage. Perhaps "what was lost" was the true actress she was - the person everyone admired until she became so downtrodden and dependent on the taste of alcohol, the sound of the ice clinking against a cool class and the way it always managed to quench her incessant thirst. Perhaps that person could never truly be recovered - the actress who won acclaim for her part in her first husband J. Hartley Manners' 1912 production of Peg O' My Heart. Perhaps when a person relinquishes the being she once was, a certain part of that which made her her was simultaneously lost and taken away. While the first is inadvertent and unintended, the other is brought about by personal choice; it is the inability for one to hold on to something and keeping it one's own.
What this play proves to the audience, though, is that alcoholism was something that happened to Laurette Taylor, but did not have to become a facet of her being.
There is not enough praise that can be given Penny Lynn White, who portrays the epic Laurette Taylor. Not only is she an absolutely brilliant actress who really could do no wrong in this production, but she portrays a character who is constantly changing throughout the show with such natural ability and talent. Taylor could have just been portrayed as an aging woman who is compelled to act in a play she thought was "decent," but worth a try, gradually becoming more invested and then almost surprisingly finding herself again towards the end as the actress she abandoned but never truly deserted long ago, proceeding her husband's death.
No - white clearly dissected this role, making the right acting choices and so naturally portraying not a character, but a woman whose meek, somewhat debilitated appearance gave rise to this beaming actress that was dormant for so long. She really captures the experience - the breakdown - of how Taylor went from a semi-retired and jaded actress who is offered a part in some unknown playwright's creation, who discovers that this play is as close and personal to Tennessee Williams as a child and from thereon out uses the concept of it "only being a play" to get her through the difficulty of memorizing lines and becoming the great star she once was. White is complimented, yelled at, scolded and verbally abused by those who want to bring something that is "only a play" to fruition, so the irony of the struggle is certainly there. It takes an actress such as White to bring this character to life, and my, did she do a fantastic job.
Paul Thomas Ryan is brilliant as Tennessee Williams. Again, he is another person who can transition from anger, to feeling concerned and paternal with such graceful ease. Oh, but when he gets angry, the audience physically shirks in fear; I noticed how surprised everyone was by his heated demeanor at certain points during the play. The Glass Menagerie was something beyond personal for Williams. Since writing was a way to express himself through the many unfortunate events which befell both him and his family (including an illness which left him paralyzed during his youth, a marriage between his parents which he considered "wrong" and his sister's schizophrenia). Williams also juggled many affairs with different men, but throughout all of this arose one of the greatest playwrights, revered both then and now. So, Ryan took on a full plate when he accepted this role, as his character is so complicated and conflicted. There really isn't anything more to say then that he did Williams so much justice in portraying him, while also standing on his own two feet as a powerful character, living in the present upon that stage and feeling as ardently as anyone up there with him.
Kristen Gehling, who plays Marlo Jones in this production and Billie Holiday's lover in Shades of Blue, is just awesome - let's leave it at that. Kimberly Faye Greenberg as Marguerite, Taylor's daughter, is amazing. She is always caught by surprise by her mother's antics, and stays on her feet very well throughout the performance. Brian Piehl as Randolph Echols and Renee Heitmann as Julie Haydon/Ruby are also amazing, as they complete this wonderful, wonderful cast. As I said, McCasland has a knack for putting together winning performances.
In conclusion, go and see this play before time (and seating) runs out. McCasland is the very talented Artistic Director and founder of Beautiful Soup Theater, not to mention a brilliant playwright, director, actor and pianist. His shows have yet to disappoint.
What Was Lost began performances on August 28th, and will continue through September 6th. The remaining days/times are September 4th @ 7:00 p.m. and September 6th @ 8:00 p.m.. All performances are held at the Dorothy Strelsin Theater, located at 312 West 36th Street. Take the A, C or E to 34th Street-Penn Station and walk a brief distance from there. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased at http://www.showclix.com/events/1307.
Enjoy the show!
Photo Credit: Samantha Mercado Tudda