Tuesday, March 13, 2007

opening-weekend review of *The Cover of Life*

at the Civic's Studio Theater through March 31

Rosie the Riveter didn’t just work in factories. All over the country during World War II, with the men absent, women learned that they actually had personalities and dreams of their own.

Director Susan Hardie’s production of R.T. Robinson’s *The Cover of Life* (in the Firth J. Chew Studio Theater through March 31) starts out as a slice of Southern small-town life during wartime and concludes by revving up the engines of sisterhood and solidarity.

The premise has promise: Three brothers have gone off to war, leaving their wives to move in with Mama. Amid the difficulties of merging four disparate lives, in comes a fifth woman: a reporter from Life magazine who’s gotten wind of the story and wants to make something more of it than just a cozy human-interest profile.

But of the men in the lives of the five main women in Robinson’s play — the mother-in-law’s worthless husband, the three brothers gone off to war, and the Life reporter’s boss and publisher — only one actually makes an appearance in this play. This has its advantages and bigger disadvantages. Plays are often enlivened by discussion of off-stage characters, after all: It creates the sensation that the onstage folks live in a complete world. But when so much of the conversation involves unseen, unspeaking male characters, the deck seems stacked in favor of the girls. (In fairness, playwright Robinson is of the male gender, and his grandfather was one of the three Cliffert brothers who went off to fight the war.)

The men’s exclusion from the action has its distractions: With all that telling instead of showing, I found my attention wandering much more often than with other plays. Which husband’s in which branch of the armed forces? And he’s fighting where? Who’s the switchboard operator spreading gossip about now? And tell me again why the third husband’s a rotten scoundrel just like his no-good father?

Despite the absence of some ghost characters, some of what we see onstage is engaging. Hardie’s direction and Sara Nicholls’ performance as the Life reporter are the best things about this show. There’s a sequence early in the evening — the three young wives scurrying around the kitchen, gossiping and bickering as they swirl past their mother in law — that seems so naturalistic, you forget you’re watching a play. Hardie choreographs the ebb and flow of conversation at a tricky point — during the necessary exposition — but makes it all seem like real-life bustling-about.

As the big-time New York City reporter, Nicholls has the proper swagger. In the slacks and shoulder pads supplied by costumers Susan Berger and Jan Wanless, she looks like the picture of 1940s proto-feminism, a kind of Margaret Bourke-White character (the photojournalist played by Candice Bergen in *Gandhi*). The action quickens whenever Nicholls appears as the city fish out of water down here in Loozeeanna, partly because her character is resisting Henry Luce up in NYC from the beginning.

As the sailor-husband of one of the three sisters-in-law, Andrew Biviano captures the put-upon pleading of a runty youngest brother. He’s weak enough to make over-fancy promises in his fervent love letters home while still appearing strong enough to expect that any wife of his will bury her own dreams in favor of his own. And Biviano and Morton cut a rug with some nifty ‘40s dance moves. Beau Wilkinson has provided an evocative swing-dance soundtrack.

Susan Creed contributes her usual sense of command as the matriarch, though a gun-wielding crazy scene didn’t carry much conviction. As for the three wives, Lauren Waterbury plays a good drunk but isn’t up to the tragic demands of her philandering wife role. As Weetsie (yes, they have names like that in this play), Melanie Simka doesn’t make much of an impression, partly because Robinson doesn’t clarify her story and doesn’t give her much to do other than bicker. The best of the lot is Tanya Morton as Tood, the one who gets enlightened through contact with a Modern Urban Woman and learns to stand up for her dreams, even when her hubbie comes triumphantly home. Morton has a vulnerable quality that serves her well in scenes when she reluctantly has to confront others about their narrowness. Along with Nicholls’ reporter, Tood’s journey is the most interesting investigation of how you can’t judge life — “upper-case or lower-case” — by its cover.


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