Reviewer: Kristine Gotham
Venue: Bay City Players
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is the story of two women. One, a middle aged white woman who is desperately trying to hold onto the fame she gained as a child actress, the other, a black woman who seeks fame as an actress in 1930’s Hollywood, while working as a maid for the former. Both women discover over time that fame on the silver screen is not all that one might think.
Vera Stark is brilliantly played by Elise Williams in her first leading role. Williams brings a realism to the role of Vera, she is willing to do whatever kind of work she has to do day to day in order to pursue her dreams of becoming a screen actress. She is not angry about it, neither is she thrilled. She just knows that this is the way it goes, especially for a black woman.
Megan Douglass plays Gloria Mitchell, who found fame as a child actress and is trying to find that fame again as an adult. Vera is her maid and also her friend. Vera knows all of her secrets and still is there for her as she attempts to land the leading role in the hot new movie, “The Belle of New Orleans”. Douglass portrays Gloria as someone who is over the top, melodramatic, desperate. She is adept at switching her character from one emotion to the next at the turn of a phrase or interaction with another character, as the situation warrants.
While Vera and Gloria are the main focus of the play, there are several other characters with whom they interact, that round out the production. Michael Curtis plays movie director, Maximillian Von Oster. Von Oster is self-important, with grandiose ideas and little thought or care for budget or perception. Curtis portrays Von Oster with just the right amount of snobbery to make him thoroughly believable.
Indigo Dudley and Yoladie Hamilton, play Vera’s friends and roommates, Lottie McBride and Anna Mae Simpkins. The friends are both supportive and competitive with one another. They all want to make it big in Hollywood. Lottie works with Vera occasionally, although she really cannot stand Gloria. While Anna Mae goes about seeking fame in a different direction, she seeks out those who are influential in the film industry, a modern day gold digger.
Paul Oslund plays Slasvick, the producer for the film, “Belle of New Orleans”. Oslund skillfully presents Slasvick as one who has to bring the vision of Von Oster to life, while also pleasing the studio executives and the viewing audience in a time when people wanted to forget the misery of their daily lives and allow a movie to take them to another place, another time.
Aland Stamps rounds out the cast as Leroy Barksdale, driver for Von Oster, and new friend to Vera. Stamps is a first time actor and he wholly embraces his character.
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark spans over 40 years. The first half of the play tells the story of Vera and Gloria as they both strive to achieve parts in the new film, “Belle of New Orleans”. The second half of the play is set in 1973. It is several productions at once. There are scenes from the completed movie shown on a screen at the top of the stage. In another production, Vera is a guest on a late night talk show hosted by Brad Donovan, played by Oslund. Vera is joined on the show by second guest, Peter Rhys-Davies, played by Michael Curtis. Gloria Mitchell arrives as a surprise guest, a surprise especially for Vera. A third production stars Stamps as facilitator, Herb Forester, Dudley as Carmen Levy-Green, a fan of Vera Stark and an author/investigator of her life, and Hamilton as Afua Assata Ejobo, an author as well with beliefs far different from Levy-Green. These three professionals are gathered in a type of lecture environment, to review scenes from the movie and also Starks’ appearance on the Brad Donovan Show, to offer their insight and opinion regarding Vera’s career and ultimately her disappearance from public life.
The first and second halves of the play are good in their own right but seem a bit disjointed from one another as a whole production. Director, Gordon Levine, states in his Director’s Note, that this production is “not an easy endeavor, but a wonderful challenge”. A challenge which he deftly manages.
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is meant to be a satire, a picture of Hollywood when black actresses could appear on screen but only if they were played by white actresses and no one mentioned that they were black. There are plenty of moments in the play where the audience cannot help but laugh, but at the same time it is thought-provoking, forcing the audience to face what was reality at one time and to strive forward with equality for all actors/actresses.
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is on stage at Bay City Players this weekend, February 3-5 and next, February 10-12. Tickets are available at the Box Office.