Sometimes what you want is the fairy tale, a storybook romance that begins with ”once upon a time” and ends with — if not slain dragons and the ruin of an evil queen — obstacles dispatched and the assurance that the future will be ”happily ever after.”
Ford’s Theatre is delivering such a story with their production of Sabrina Fair but, thanks to a surprisingly effective twist on Samuel A. Taylor’s original play about love between the classes, that ”happily ever after” bit is left hanging in the air like a question mark.
Of course, Sabrina Fair is not set in some far away once upon a time. Instead, we meet the Larrabee family on their beautiful estate on the north shore of Long Island. This is that gilded 1950s that perhaps best exists on the silver screen, in those romantic comedies where parties were filled with men in white dinner jackets and marriage proposals were as plentiful as private sailboats in the bay. When household servants watched over the affairs of the house with a knowing wink and the person who most infuriated you was destined to be the man of your dreams.
Sabrina, daughter of the Larrabees’ faithful chauffer, is returning from five years of living abroad in Paris. The time abroad has changed Sabrina (Susan Heyward), and the shy girl who once crept her way around the estate, peeking around corners, arrives home in a flurry of satin skirts. Her French is perfect, her clothes are perfect and her enthusiasm – while not without its more thoughtless moments – is contagious.
She is greeted exactly as she had hoped she would be, with no one immediately recognizing the beautiful young woman with a strange taste in gifts. Maude (Helen Hedman), the family matriarch who has spent the morning describing a meek youngster afraid of her own shadow, hadn’t expected this kind of transformation. Neither had David Larrabee (Tom Story), the son with whom Sabrina had played games with when they were children.
It’s the perfect homecoming. Sabrina is Cinderella at the ball, a young woman successfully disguised in an air of confidence, newfound experience and, of course, some gorgeous new clothes. Or, it would be perfect, if Linus Larrabee Jr. (Todd Gearhart) didn’t stroll in and greet Sabrina with such casual familiarity you would think she had only just returned from a quick trip to the corner market.
From that point Sabrina Fair unfolds as a proper romantic comedy should. David, who has already been married once before, is instantly smitten with Sabrina and quickly decides that they should be married. Unfortunately for David there are a number of dragons standing in his way, most significantly the fact that this is the early 1950s and Sabrina is the daughter of a servant. And, in Ford’s Theatre’s interpretation, African-American.
None of the dialogue has been changed from the Taylor original. None of the discussions as to why Sabrina is an unsuitable match for David have been altered. It is, instead, left as something unspoken in the room – the reason that will not be named in all this polite company. Director Stephen Rayne has marched an entirely discomforting elephant onto the stage.
Which is why Ford’s Sabrina Fair feels so contemporary, even with its slightly exaggerated styling. A canny mix of old-school Hollywood posturing and through-the-teeth annunciation that, were it not so perfectly executed, would have transformed all and sundry into a collection of dry, cardboard caricatures. Instead, the overall effect is both quirky and charming.
More importantly, Rayne’s decision to add a racial dimension to this fairytale is put forward not with some elaborate, scolding gesture but as a bit of sleight of hand. Taylor wanted to talk about the ridiculous obstacles that prevent people who love one another from being together. Rayne’s Sabrina Fair is simply continuing that conversation. Which is what causes the tantalizing unanswered piece of this puzzle to materialize. Even if true love conquers all in the walled garden patio of the Larrabee estate, there is a vast world beyond.
What happens when the fairy tale ends and the real world begins?
As Sabrina, Heyward is gorgeous in every way possible. Bright and arresting, with an entirely delightful presence, she’s the perfect selection for the butterfly-like chauffer’s daughter. She shows us a young woman filled with excitement and enthusiasm and avoids reducing her to a single note. There’s a struggle behind all the giggles and squeals of delight, and Heyward captures that difficult work.
Story and Gearhart are another great match as the brothers Larrabee. Gearhart’s Linus is brash and slightly vain, the kind of guy who swaggers into a room with his hands in his pockets, square jaw leading the way. Story is charged with bringing to life the nice guy, the one who gave up competing with his brother some time ago, resigned to the fact that they live worlds away from one another. The balance these two actors achieve is noteworthy, bringing out their differences without ever causing any doubt that these characters are related to one another. More than that, they don’t take for granted the need to communicate to the audience that these two brothers actually love one another. It’s that little detail that allows the events of the play to come so fully into shape.
Sabrina Fair is a beautifully turned out love story tinged with enough reality to ground it, but not so much as to break its own powerful spell. It’s almost like being in love.