OnStage North Carolina Columnist
Among the many benefits of working in the Wilmington, NC theater community is its commitment to the production of material by local playwrights. This commitment is reflected in an organization called Page to Stage, which nurtures new material through staged readings, and on to larger scale productions. The entire local artist initiative, pursued with such zeal, is aided and abetted by some very talented writers.
On Sunday, May 22, one of those talented writers - Tom Briggs - who is also an actor, director, producer and former artistic director of North Carolina's "official community theater," The Thalian Association, brought to the city's TheaterNOW stage an adaptation of Joseph Mankiewicz' 1950 film, All About Eve. The film picked up 12 Academy Award nominations and won six of them - Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (George Sanders), Best Costume Design; Black and White (Edith Head, Charles Lemaire), Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay (Mankiewicz), and Best Sound Editing. A month later, in Cannes, Bette Davis picked up a Best Actress award for her work on the film, while the film itself won the Special Jury Prize.
All of which speaks to a highly effective combination of cinematic story-telling, direction and acting, which has been described as a "classic of the American cinema." None of this is particularly revealing about Mr. Briggs' stage adaptation, other than to note that he had a film masterpiece to work with. He has, however, crafted an elegant work that brings all that the film had to offer to the stage, and found himself a highly competent cast to pull it off.
Just try to imagine following in Bette Davis' footsteps, and matching her delivery of the film's famous line - "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night."
Before we delve into specifics, it should be noted that this Sunday night performance was a staged reading. Furniture amounted to varied arrangements of straight-back bamboo chairs. Drink glasses and telephones were non-existent and every member of the cast carried a script. That said, costumes were of full production quality, lighting was designed and executed, stage movement was well-rehearsed, and the performances were polished. The iconic famous line most assuredly did not refer to this staged reading. As the director, Briggs helmed an almost fully-realized production of the film he has adapted for the stage.
Staged readings are not normally expected to elicit useful responses from any gathered audience. As a quintessential work in progress, it is expected to be "a bumpy ride" with, generally, a lot of work necessary to fine tune everything from the writing to performances and direction; all part of the learning process. Briggs, however, brought years of experience to the work, having adapted the Broadway production of State Fair, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, and Irving Berlin's Easter Parade. His work with this adaptation is stellar. It invokes all of the themes, and mounting tension of the original, and it does so with a practiced eye on the peculiarities of stagecraft, which, even with scripts in hands, was something to see.
Like the film, it's been designed without an intermission, and it could be argued that as a stage experience, it's just a bit too long (just shy of two hours) for a single sitting. Actual scene changes, involving more than just chairs and including actual telephones, drink glasses and other assorted props would have a way of making it even longer. This, though, might have a lot to do with expectations. As theater-goers, we tend to get used to the idea that midway through a performance, we can get up to use a restroom or (adding to the theater's revenue) drink a bit of wine purchased at a concession stand. There's even a name coined for this - Broadway Bladder - indicating the necessity of Broadway audiences to get to a restroom no later than 75 minutes after the rise of an initial curtain. Not always, of course. Man of La Mancha is traditionally performed without an intermission, as is A Chorus Line. Shakespeare's plays were originally intended for performance without them. This adaptation, though, could probably use one.
For those perhaps unfamiliar with the tale, which is based on a 1946 short story by Mary Orr, called "The Wisdom of Eve" (Orr was not credited in the film), it is a tale about a highly ambitious young actress named Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter in the film), who ingratiates herself into the world of an aging actress, Margo Channing (Bette Davis). While touching upon themes of age discrimination, particularly among actresses, and what might best be described as the dying of the light among human beings, in general, it broadens to examine certain destructive impulses associated with blind ambition. While Harrington's character is introduced as a star-struck innocent, anxious only to be near the object of her intense admiration, she is eventually revealed as a calculating, deceitful woman, looking to bring down and eventually replace the star she supposedly reveres.
What makes the tale particularly compelling is the fact that we, as witnesses, can see where it's headed very soon, though we're denied the satisfaction of seeing it actually happen for quite a long time. There's almost a sense of impatience built into the story line, which has a way of making us a bit antsy, as we wonder what Eve's going to do next to accomplish the goal we've known almost from the start that she's wanted to attain.
One of the strengths of Briggs' adaptation is its adherence to this mounting tension and something of a stubborn refusal to rush things. Were Eve's true character to be revealed too early, we might be inclined to sympathize with Margo, who has something of an abrasive, diva-like nature. This has a way of focusing early sympathy on the young, presumably innocent girl (Eve). There's a delicious division of our early loyalties, which, as the play progresses, becomes the focal point of our interest in the outcome. The scenes in the adaptation have a tendency to be short, revealing only tiny packets of information, which makes us yearn for more. Beyond Briggs' adaptation skills, it's clear that even when working within the confines of a staged reading, Briggs, the director, has approached the story with a clear understanding of its most compelling elements.
It wouldn't be fair to analyze this staged reading's performances too closely. Scripts in hand work like power outages when you're trying to get work done on your computer. Not only do they stop 'action,' they inhibit a smooth flow of development. To their credit, each of the performers in this reading were able to dispel the notion that they were working with their scripts. Once we, as audience, settled into the story, the presence of the scripts grew increasingly more invisible.
That said, particularly strong performances were turned in by Katherine Vernon in the role of Margo Channing, Alissa Fetherolf as Eve, and particularly, Lee Lowrimore as Addison DeWitt, who, like Eve, undergoes a transformation from what we think he's all about to something quite different. Also exhibiting a fine sense of her literal and figurative role in the play was Laurene Perry as Birdie Coonan, whose sharp, wry observations of the characters around her is the source of a lot of humor.
It's my contention that this character's presence in the adaptation should be increased; should, in fact, replace various other characters, who, throughout the performance, are assigned narration roles that bridge scene changes and shifts in focus. Narrators tend to be focal points in a play. Their presence often indicating a single, and often critical point of view in any given story; a reason for this or that particular character to be assigned the role of addressing an audience directly.
Tom Briggs' adaptation of Joseph Manciewicz' All About Eve was, by far, the best staged reading of a play that it has ever been my experience to witness. It fostered a strong desire to see its promise realized in a full-scale production, worthy of a Broadway opening. There's a lot of work to do before that could actually happen, but so much work has already been done that it would be a shame to see its development arrested.