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It’s interesting, this notion Horizons Theatre has about “interactive theater,” and it’s brave, too: Put five carefully drilled actresses in the shoes of notables from Louisa May Alcott to Lorraine Hansberry, add a “hostess” to get them talking, and give an audience the chance to grill the panel, and you’ve got the potential for an intriguing evening.
You’ve also got the potential for disaster. Asking your average modern audience to hold up its end of a conversation with Libby Holman and Nellie Bly, after all, is akin to assuming your average freshman lit class can intelligently discuss the novellas of Hortense Calisher and the short stories of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The subjects are doubtless fascinating, but is anybody well versed enough to do them real justice? And what does the cast do during the Q&A if there aren’t any Q’s worth an A? No such catastrophe struck on press nightbut then, the audience was there by invitation, with who knows how many well-prepped ringers in it.
Horizons clearly sees the risk, which is why it goes to such lengths with In Good Company to give its patrons background, or at least the bare bones of it. Tucked in the program is a cheat sheet with brief bios on the pioneering women (Ethel Waters is the fifth) who’ll be chatting with the peanut gallery, and the play’s first half is a series of vignettesoccasionally absorbing, more often stilted and overlongmeant to familiarize the less informed with their accomplishments, their dreams, their triumphs and frustrations. There’s even a recommended reading list to take home: Do your homework, it seems to say, and you can come back next week and really make the cast earn its keep.
That, upon sober reflection, is where In Good Company can get the energy it has to have to make it work. When everybody’s on their game, when the cast slips convincingly into character and the concept’s artifice vanishes, the give and take between audience and actress becomes almost a competition: Who’ll surprise whom? Which patron will have the nerve to call Bly, the formidable pioneer journalist who chucked her career to wed an ancient but prosperous industrialist, on what seems to be her mercenary marriage? Who’ll be cruel enough to raise the issue of Holman’s black-widow touch and whether it has anything to do with the fading actress’s fondness for drink? Will anyone have the nerve to ask Alcott, the spirited but undeniably proper Victorian author, if Little Women’s Jo was really meant to be a big ol’ lesbian? Who’ll think to ask Hansberry which fellow writer she can’t stand to sleep under the same roof withand who’ll be willing to ask why?
There are safeguards built in, of course, prepared questions and discussion points the hostess/moderator can throw out, and there’s guaranteed spark (plus a good bit of humor) in the way writer Leslie Jacobson and director Jane Latman set their quintet to potshotting occasionally at one other in the “panel” part of the evening, poking sharply at exposed weak spots and letting a little air out when anyone starts blowing too hot. Ultraserious feminists won’t like the way the bickering reinforces stereotypes about backbiting women, but let’s be real: What five strong-willed, talented people, regardless of gender, could share a stage without each trying to steal the others’ focus?
Getting inside such swelled heads has got to mean serious work, so it’s saying something that, last Sunday at least, the answers seemed to be coming from Waters et al., rather than from the women playing them. The redoubtable Beverly Cosham, as that remarkable survivor of a singing actress, slips more than believably into her skinshe even sings a reasonably convincing “Suppertime,” which will hardly come as a surprise to her fans. Rachel Gardner (Bly), Caren Anton (Alcott), and Terri Allen (Holman) are less comfortable with the personalities they assume, though all give more or less creditable performances.
The find of the month, though, is Kerry Washington, whose program bio says she’s a senior on a theater scholarship at George Washington University. Here’s a remarkably poised young woman, an actress who already has real presence and range. If it seems at first that Hansberry is simply the best-written part”I had a small epiphany this morning,” she says in the throes of writer’s block, “but I don’t know what I did with it”it becomes increasingly obvious as the evening ages that Washington’s confidence and grace in the role have a lot to do with that impression. She’s a boon for the production: All the women this Good Company celebrates have at least a little bit of the diva in them, and along with Cosham, Washington is the cast member best equipped to fill a diva’s shoes.CP