Review: 'The Cover of Life' by Phoenix Stage Company

Nancy Sasso Janis

  • OnStage Connecticut Critic

Oakville, CT - ‘The Cover of Life’ is a period play written by R. T. Robinson and refers to the coveted front cover of ‘Life’ magazine. For my younger readers, ‘Life’ was an American magazine that ran weekly from 1883 to 1972, published initially as a humor and general interest magazine that transitioned to a weekly news magazine with a strong emphasis on photojournalism. The action in the play is set during WWII and follows the lives of military wives waiting for their men to return from the war.  Phoenix Stage Company presents this dramatic comedy (that was first presented by the American Stage Company and was further developed at the Hartford Stage Company) through July 23. 

Tood, Weetsie, and Sybill are young brides in rural Louisiana in 1943 that have each married a Cliffert brother and are all living with the soldiers’ mother (Aunt Ola) while the men are serving their country. A local news story about these young wives keeping the home fires burning catches the eye of publisher Henry Luce. He wants to put them on the cover of his magazine and assigns Kate Miller to the story. The correspondent/photographer has been covering the war in Europe, but she reluctantly accepts this assignment because it will be her first cover story. Kate spends an eventful week with the Cliffert women and Addie Mae, the local reporter. As the action unfolds, her haughty urban attitude gives way to sympathy as she begins to understand them while coming face to face with her own powerlessness in a man's world. 
The play has plenty of Southern charm, with some comedy spun through what is ultimately an affecting story about the struggle for self-worth. Phoenix Stage Company presents the piece with one intermission and if it felt a bit too long, the play is a wonderful showcase for strong female actors. The drama was engrossing but I did not see the ending coming; in my opinion, this was one of the best dramas that the PSC has ever produced. 

The Phoenix Stage Company cast is made up of community theatre actresses that bring heartfelt performances to their meaty roles. Helen Adams, a veteran of four other productions with the Phoenix Stage, shines as the strong matriarch Aunt Ola. Wearing her hat of costume designer, Ms. Adams will be designing costumes for the upcoming production of ‘The Best Man’ by Gore Vidal produced by Curtain Call in Stamford. Teresa Alexandru returns to the Phoenix Stage Company to play the religious Weetsie and Tori Richnavsky shows her versatility in the role of the sensuous Sybil. Colleen Renzullo of Torrington commands the role of Addie Mae. Michael Calabrese, the only male member of the cast, returns to this stage briefly as one of the three sons in the military named Tommy. 

Marilyn Olsen (Maria Callas in ‘Master Class’ and Mrs. Lovett in ‘Sweeney Todd’) stars as Kate Miller and convincingly makes her a strong woman in the publishing world. Her forties-style hair is superb. Emily Diedrich is luminous in the role of the young bride improbably named Tood. Ms. Diedrich appeared in the PSC productions of ‘Sweeney Todd,’ ‘Love, Sex, and The I.R.S.’ and ‘The Last Five Years,’ all of which I had the pleasure to review. 

In his first PCS production, Tom Sheehan of Bethel uses his directorial expertise to make this production look and sound period perfect. Agnes Dann (Ms. Diedrich’s supportive mom and Phoenix Stage Company founding partner) is the capable stage manager and Lori Richnavsky serves as running crew. Ed Bassett and the cast were in charge of the costumes that set the tone well. Mr. Bassett also designed the wonderful set and he and Lori Poulin are credited with the set dressing.  Lori Richnavsky is the talented production hair stylist. Music from the period accents the transitions. 

Because there are many more seats available at the Phoenix Stage Company’s new location, tickets are usually available at the door but reservations are encouraged for the best seats. During intermission, don’t forget to sample the Hardcore Cake Balls for sale in the lobby. ‘The Cover of Life’ runs now through July 23, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm at Clockwork Repertory in Oakville. 

Up next at Phoenix Stage Company is ‘A Man of No Importance’ which opens August 20. The cast of this musical includes Leah Nashel, Ed Bassett, Ian Diedrich, Jeff Savage, Tony Enright, Brock Putnam, Chuck Stango, Aric Martin, Jane Coughlin, Kathy Cook, Beth Steinberg, Deb Diamonte, Debbie Goodman, Glory Smith, Leland Schick, and Bill Knight.

Pictured: The Cliffert brothers pose for a prop photograph Photo courtesy of Phoenix Stage Company