Editor’s Note: Jesse R. Gephart is a Triangle theater veteran last seen onstage in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) at Theatre in the Park. A 27-year-old Gainesville, FL native, Gephart is a 2005 graduate of Appalachian State University, with a bachelor’s degree in Theatre Performance. On Dec. 9-12, he will reprise his dual role as David/Crumpet in The SantaLand Diaries by David Sedaris and Joe Mantello.
In November of 1993 and again on Oct. 22nd of this year, N.C. State University Center Stage hosted an out-of-town tryout of Faith Healing, a collaborative theater/dance piece created by Jane Comfort and Company, based on Tennessee Williams’ classic Southern drama, The Glass Menagerie. Seventeen years ago, Faith Healing took the Raleigh and New York theater scenes by storm. Moreover, the piece’s 1993, Off-Broadway run opened doors for members of the company, including Comfort, who went on to choreograph a Broadway musical, due to the attention she’d received from the show.
Last Friday night, the NCSU Center Stage audience was the first to see the production since its original run in 1993. Aside from writer, director, and choreographer Jane Comfort, the only returning member of the original production is Mark Dendy, who played Amanda Wingfield in 1993. Dendy possesses a special something that Comfort spoke of in her pre-show discussion, something that is not only an underlying theme of Williams’ play, but of Comfort’s piece: longing. In a very tender scene shared between Amanda and her son Tom (Sean Donovan), Dendy as Amanda stares out at the moon, eyes glinting in the light, brimming with tears, and swoons over her past and the worry of what is to come.
The idea of casting a man as Amanda Wingfield, the quintessential Southern matriarch, was something Comfort wanted to explore from the beginning. She had experimented with the idea of gender reversal in the early 1990s in an original piece titled Deportment, which began, conceptually, as a journey through how women are brought up to be women in the South. But slowly Comfort transformed Deportment into a piece dealing with racism, homophobia, and sexism.
During the evolution of Deportment — for reasons she cannot explain — Comfort dropped in a couple scenes from The Glass Menagerie; and from that came the idea for the complete re-envisioning (or a “deconstruction” as Comfort says, in quotes) of Williams’ play.
For Jane Comfort, Mark Dendy was always the best choice for the Amanda Wingfield of Faith Healing. Though he’s not as thin and spry as he was in 1993, Dendy controls Williams’ language with a generous lilt and flare that is mesmerizing. Believe it or not, there are times when you forget you’re watching a man at all. This is one of the greatest accomplishments of the show. Dendy won rave reviews for the piece 17 years ago, and he certainly showed NCSU Center Stage patrons why.
Faith Healing begins, appropriately enough, with an Evangelical preacher running down the aisle, calling out for people looking to be saved; our preacher man has a direct line to God, and eventually pulls down both Amanda and Laura Wingfield (Heather Christian) and saves them. As we drift into the dining room of the Wingfield house, Tom appears, shedding the fire-fringed, white coat of our man of God. The three Wingfields sit around an invisible table, lit by a wrecked chandelier; and those familiar Williams words begin to fill the theater: Amanda chastising her son for not eating his food, insisting he chew and chew and chew, as he doesn’t have the digestive secretions in his stomach that animals have.
The lines are spoken over sharply choreographed arm and hand movements; and each character echoes the others, creating a round of Amanda’s overbearing life lessons. The first of many lip-synching moments comes in this scene, when Tom mouths the infamous Terminator line, “Hasta la vista, baby.” This is when you know — this ain’t your momma’s Glass Menagerie.
The lip-synching was an interesting integration that worked most of the time. Although it was at first a bit off-putting to watch the Gentleman Caller (Matthew Hardy) shed his outer layer to reveal a too-small Superman costume and cape, speaking the words of the late Christopher Reeve as he goads a hesitant Lois Lane into flying with him, the sentiment behind the scene used is the same as what Laura is experiencing in her feelings towards Jim — he is saving her. It’s the same emotion felt by Amanda — the Gentleman Caller is swooping in to save the Wingfield family. This is exemplified by Amanda, clothed in white, with shear fabric draped around her, speaking the words of Scarlett O’Hara, begging Rhett (also played by the Gentleman Caller) to take her back to Tara.
For me, a major failure in the lip-synching revolved around Tom. Comfort staged two dances for Tom, one with a woman (Raleigh’s Amanda Floyd Beaty) and one with a man (played by Hardy). Both of these dances were done to lip-synching movies that I didn’t recognize (a problem that Comfort mentioned in her pre-show talk: the younger generation of today may not grasp all of the “dated” references from the early 1990s). So, ultimately those tracks just got in the way. I’d have much rather watched the dance in silence, than have to listen to the furious kissing playing on the track, or the staccato breathing or muffled words being spoken. It just took away from what could have been a very striking moment.
Comfort has gathered an extraordinarily talented group of “actor/dancers” as she calls them. Heather Christian’s high-octave, almost Kermit-like voice, took some getting used to; but her overall take on the crippled Laura was beautiful to behold. Laura is a hard part; but to dissect it the way Comfort has, and to show Laura’s inner pain but outward shine, was a testament to Christian’s abilities.
Sean Donovan manifested the inner torment that plagues Tom as he searches for an escape. He demonstrated his talent as a dancer mostly during his encounter with the “woman from the movies” — in a highly erotic dance that involved the two stripping into their underwear, a sight that, not surprisingly, clearly made some of the older audience members uncomfortable. By including such overtly sexual material, Comfort is able to explore Tom’s sexual confusion in more detail, even if those scenes are marred by the lip-synching mess mentioned earlier.
Matthew Hardy’s Jim O’Connor, a.k.a. the Gentleman Caller, was a much more present figure in this piece than he is in Williams’ play. While the character is spoken of but rarely seen, Comfort allows him to be a constant part of the show. Hardy’s shining moments lie in Act Two, where he has a delicate “pas de deux” with Amanda and a roller-skating “courting” scene with Laura.
Although I did not join what seemed like the rest of the audience for their standing ovation at the conclusion of the performance, I did appreciate this work as experimental theater that unfortunately, like many pieces written or conceived almost two decades ago, failed to age appropriately. Along with Tennessee Williams’ characters, I had a sense of longing when this show ended: a longing for a stronger heart, a more poignant conclusion to this piece. We’ll see what New York has to say, after the show Off-Broadway revival opens on Wednesday.
SECOND OPINION: Oct. 17th Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview: http://www.newsobserver.com/2010/10/17/742453/ncsu-getting-faith-healing-before.html. (To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the Oct. 20th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2010/10/mark-dendy-reprises-his-role-as-amanda-in-jane-comfort-and-companys-faith-healing/.)
VIDEO PREVIEW: http://vimeo.com/5003869.
Jane Comfort and Company: http://www.janecomfortandcompany.org/home.html.
To read all of Jesse R. Gephart’s reviews, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/jesse-r-gephart/.