Many plays, musicals and movies use Hollywood as a backdrop. Sunset Boulevard, City of Angels and Mack and Mabel are a few examples of how Hollywood has crossed into other mediums of entertainment. Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage gives us a look into stereotypes and type casting in Hollywood with her excellent play By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, now playing at Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre.
Vera Stark (Dawn Ursula) is an African-American woman in 1933 Hollywood and working as a maid for a high maintenance actress named Gloria Mitchell (Beth Hylton.) When film director Maximilian Von Oster (Robert Lyons) comes to Gloria’s house to discuss his latest film called The Belle of New Orleans there are several complications, one of which is he is in need of an actress to play the role of Tilly, a house servant. Ultimately, Vera lands the role and for the next 40 plus years it will come back to haunt her. She will always be remembered for that particular role and will constantly portray those types of characters with her last role being in a zombie flick.
Then there are the characters that will do anything to work in Hollywood. We have Lottie McBride (Kelli Blackwell) who will do the dance of playing house servants just to break into Hollywood after working on the stage. Anna Mae Simpkins (Kathryn Tkel) is even willing to pass for Brazilian to work in pictures.
…this show gets two thumbs way up.
If this isn’t enough plot for you then we have the studio executive Frederick Slasvick (Will Love) who wants all of his movies to be puppies and rainbows while Von Oster wants to make something deeper. Plus there is Gloria’s chauffer Leroy Barksdale (Yaegel T. Welch) who falls in love with Vera.
Act two is set in 2003 and examines the question, “Whatever became of Vera Stark after The Belle of New Orleans?” Nottage does this by setting us in a film forum type of scene with a film fan as moderator and two panelists who are authorities on film. We are shown Vera’s last television interview from 1973 on a Mike Douglas (remember him) type talk show and the panelists analyze why Vera fell into obscurity. Vera in the interview is quite bitter and while she is complimented time and again by the host of the show Brad Donovan (Will Love) and a British rock guest star Peter Rhys-Davies (Robert Lyons), you can tell she would like to move on and not discuss the role that made her famous.
Nottage’s topic is a familiar one but her writing is so good that is feels fresh and vibrant. It is a brutally honest look at what African-American performers had to go through during Hollywood’s golden age.
The actress playing Vera Stark has to carry the show of course and Helen Hayes Award winner Dawn Ursula more than does so. Her portrayal of the maid turned actress is one of the best performances you will see all season. It never becomes cartoony and by the end you feel so bad for her character and realize what could have been if things were different in Hollywood at the time of her film career.
Another standout performance is Beth Hylton’s Norma Desmond approach to Gloria Mitchell. Yes this is a stock character but Hylton is a wonderful actress so the fact you’ve seen this kind of character before doesn’t bother you at all.
Of the males, Will Love is hysterical as the plastic talk show host, and Robert Lyons as the tortured filmmaker Maximilian Von Oster is another example of a stock character performed in a way that’s not the same old thing.
Veteran director Walter Dallas’s staging is well paced and balances the dramatic and comedic sections of Nottage’s script nicely. This is a play that if done wrong could come off a little racist but Dallas treats the material honestly and emotionally right all the way through.
Production values are right for the period. Daniel Ettinger’s dual period settings are not overbearing, but I must admit the scene shifts by the crew felt a little long in spots. It is interesting to me that scenery can fly in but can’t be automated to magically appear on the ground in Everyman’s new space. This leaves the crew to move some rather large units and set most of the furniture in full view of the audience.
Chas Marsh wonderfully puts the film sequences together and all look like the black and white films of the day. They are enhanced audibly by Elisheba Ittoop’s sound design, which features original music that sounds just like authentic 1930s melodramatic film scoring.
David Burdick’s period specific costumes range from 1930s maid wear to shagadelic 1970s bell bottoms.
Cut, print and get thee to Everyman Theatre for By The Way, Meet Vera Stark. Dawn Ursula’s performance alone makes it a must see, while Lynn Nottage’s play will leave you thinking about how we wrongly treated so many performers based on the color of their skin and how even today it unfortunately is still happening. Add to this a fine supporting cast and production and this show gets two thumbs way up.
Running Time: Two Hours and twenty minutes including one intermission.
By The Way, Meet Vera Stark plays through May 11, 2014 at Everyman Theatre— 315 West Fayette Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 752-2208, or purchase them online.