Shining like a small but powerful beacon from its quiet corner in Arlington, The American Century Theater continues its extraordinary mission to seek out and stage significant 20th century American plays. And while TACT has a knack for simple sets suggesting times gone by, the company is far more about airing those plays with something lasting, unique and quintessentially American to offer than it is about a trip down memory lane. So, although its production of Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman’s Stage Door may nicely evoke the cozy and often comical intimacy of a Depression-era rooming house for young actresses, we find that it just as clearly offers an unusually unsentimental view into these women’s lives and a surprisingly accurate and scathing prediction of Hollywood’s impact on live theater.
Working a huge cast, director Marie Sproul choreographs her masses to clever effect, especially considering the confines of the Gunston Theatre Two. From suggesting the bustle of the New York City street outside the rooming house to the comings and goings of the many roommates inside, Sproul keeps things focused and alive. She also does a good job with the young cast even though not everyone can carry the tempo consistently and there are a few dramatically opaque moments. Still, though an occasional moment may lose its focus, overall Sproul delivers a cohesive sense of the mood and mores of the era along with much of the comedy and realism the playwrights so clearly intended.
Although we get a sense of all the women in the house and a number of nano-plots, this is really the story of Terry Randall, the plucky gal whose devotion to stage acting is so pure she turns down a chance to make it big in Hollywood. Although in real life, her dedication to live theater might have gotten her no further than the job she eventually takes at Macy’s, here she is rescued by the wealthy David Kingsley who not only turns out to love her but also happens to have a play she can star in. Although there is nothing especially gritty in Terry’s story, she voices with amazing clarity some of the harshest sentiments regarding the hardships of breaking into the New York theater scene as well as the threat to live theater presented by the burgeoning Hollywood talkies.
As the indefatigable Terry, Kate Volpe succeeds in keeping her young woman compelling despite her Girl Scout values. Though it might have been easier to channel “Julie Andrews” for this unassailable gal, Volpe gives her a kind of angry energy that keeps her real while her expressive face gives personality to her words. The rather dated writing makes it is hard to see what Terry admires in her two suitors — the self-centered playwright Keith Burgess and the impossibly selfless producer Kingsley — but Volpe emotes as much as the play allows.
Although both Joshua Dick as Burgess and Nicolas Hanson as Kingsley give their men presence, neither quite conquer the challenges of the play’s somewhat stilted romantic scenes. Hanson gets close to the required balance between ardor, princely patience and manly firmness required but doesn’t quite play it large enough. Dick has energy but never seems at home with his arrogant playwright.
The desperately sad Kaye Hamilton and the simply desperate Linda Shaw, show a far grittier side of life in the ’30s. These are the economically powerless women, abused at the hands of their families or men, who will choose anything rather than a return to their past lives. As Hamilton, Ashley Faye Dillard captures a quiet sadness that resonates nicely even though we learn very little of Hamilton’s life beyond a single brief and tightly veiled monologue. As Linda Shaw, a woman willing to suffer the ignominy of life as a mistress rather than return to her wealthy but apparently strained family, Leigh Anna Fry offers an unsettled, realistic edge even if she doesn’t quite convince when her wealthy mother (played with much presence by Emily Love Morrison) makes a surprise visit.
Creating the general hubbub and hijinks of the house, the rest of the ensemble delivers much energy and some good comic timing. Particularly notable are Shannon Listol as the mildly subversive Judith Canfield; Sherry Berg and Jacqui Farkas as the comical ”Big Mary” Harper and ”Little Mary” McCune; and Jennifer Speerstra who gives her irrepressible Bernice Niemeyer a nice dose of good-natured campiness. Excellent as always, Steve Lebens shines in multiple roles as Terry’s father, the house butler and as brutal producer Adolph Gretzl.