Pretty to Watch, Messy to Contemplate: FAR FROM HEAVEN

Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo. Look at those costumes!

Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.

Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Co.
Book by Richard Greenberg
Music by Scott Frankel
Lyrics by Michael Korie
Based on the Focus Features/Vulcan Production Motion Picture, Written & Directed by Todd Haynes

Directed by Scott Edmiston
Musical Direction by Steven Bergman
Choreography by David Connolly

Sept. 12 – Oct. 11, 2014
Stanford Calderwood Pavilion
Boston Center for the Arts
527 Tremont Street in Boston’s South End
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Review by Kitty Drexel

(Boston, MA) In 1957, Betty Friedan conducted a survey of Smith College graduates to celebrate their 15th anniversary. When she discovered that many of her contemporaries were deeply unhappy, she expanded her research to include other US suburban housewives. She continued her research into psychology and other social sciences. Her studies found a “problem that has no name,” a depression among women despite their ensured physical and emotional comforts. A life revolving around marriage and children was deeply unfulfilling.

This study and her corresponding writings were the basis for The Feminine Mystique, a book that sparked the second-wave of feminism. Published in 1963, it has played an influential part in assuring a modern woman’s right to equality. Women who work outside of the home owe a large part of their freedoms to Friedan and the women who worked with her. Friedan began her survey the same year that Far From Heaven begins.

This musical is about affluent Stepford wife, Cathy Whitaker (Jennifer Ellis), who loves people who can’t love her back. It is set against a background of volatile racism, homophobia and domestic abuse. As Cathy fights against her submissive programming, she loses her husband, Frank (Josh Sussman), her perfect appearing life, and the only other man for whom she has affection, Raymond Deagan (played by the passionate Maurice Emmanuel Parent). To make matters worse, it all occurs in Hartford, CT.

It’s fitting that the main character Cathy Whitaker should personify the perfect, beautiful 1950’s housewife with a false facade of happiness when so many women were experiencing the same secret miseries in the same era. She is the 1950’s everywoman. For example, Friedan wrote:
The shores are strewn with the casualties of the feminine mystique. They did give up their own education to put their husbands through college, and then, maybe against their own wishes, ten or fifteen years later, they were left in the lurch by divorce. The strongest were able to cope more or less well, but it wasn’t that easy for a woman of forty-five or fifty to move ahead in a profession and make a new life for herself and her children or herself alone.
Cathy is the woman who gave up everything for her family to only be cast aside. While other women were used up by husbands that didn’t know any better, Cathy is suffering neglect from husband who cannot love her. The writers capture Cathy’s characterization as a Mad Men-esque housewife down pat but the writing goes downhill from there.

Greenberg and Korie’s attempt to compare the loneliness of racism to the loneliness of social ostracism is well-intentioned but insulting. Cathy and Raymond’s love duet, “The Only One,” is a very pretty piece of music with an excellent vocal line but it doesn’t work dramatically. While Cathy’s experience should not be diminished, it must be put into proper context. She is White and enjoys the universal privilege her skin affords. Raymond is Black and will spend his life as a second class citizen to White folk. Cathy could not possibly comprehend Raymond’s life. Their lives are incomparable.

Greenberg’s comparison of racial prejudice to homophobic prejudice fares better. Both men are trapped by a conservative society that limits the definition of who they are allowed to be. If only this were a musical about Frank and Raymond becoming allies! We’d get to see both men learn and grow with each other despite the strictures of society. The audience would get to understand the realities of prejudice from the people they affect rather than from the straight, White*, hetero people around him. Alas, it is not.

Despite the problems of the script, the cast of Far From Heaven gives an entertaining performance that is mostly successful. Lead actress, Jennifer Ellis is sweetly sincere as Cathy Whitaker. Her portrayal of this fragile housewife inspires empathy in her audience even as Cathy willingly walks into more pain. Ellis’s is a clear, expressive soprano with great versatility. Her performance was exceptional and carried the weight of the show to greater heights than it might have achieved without her.

Supporting actors, Aimee Doherty, Kerry A. Dowling, Ellen Peterson, and Will McGarrahan also give excellent performances that stole the stage with their talents.  Doherty played Cathy’s snazzy, down to earth (mezzo) best friend, Eleanor Fine, with great pizzaz. Dowling, Mischley, and McGarrahan gave the production boosts of desperately needed comedic relief.

It would be accurate to say that the other leading members of the cast acted the crap out of their roles. Yet, their performances were reduced by what I will refer to as mumble singing. For whatever reason, sound issues or poor diction, it took lip-reading to understand what was being communicated through song.

The costumes by Charles Schoonmaker, his assistant Amanda Ostrow, and intern Margaret Galvin were simply divine! They color coded clothing according to character, plot development and mood all while giving the stage to the actors. Dresses fit like tailored gloves and even matched sympathetic characters sharing the stage. The costumes for “Autumn in Connecticut,” the opening number, matched the fall leaves incorporated into the set. The ensemble song “Once a Year,” which delivers the coup de gras to Cathy and Frank’s marriage, was awash in supple fall/winter bronzes that effectively signaled the end to a bitter relationship. Other numbers utilized vivid reds, blues and purples that caught the eye… It’s porn. This musical is vintage clothing porn.

Despite its problems, Far From Heaven is a very good production. As usual, SpeakEasy gives us another extremely well-crafted musical created/performed by exceptionally talented artists. The dialogue this musical opens is an important one: women are people; people can only be who they are and no amount of therapy or wishful thinking will change that; racism is a human problem that we must face head on in order to eradicate it. The majority of the performances by the cast are solid but the writing by the creators is not.

 

* This is yet another story about race told from the perspective of a White person. Why is it so difficult to discuss race from the perspective of a POC in a piece about both White and Black people? If White people have any interest in ridding the world of racism, it behooves us to hear as many stories that accurately represent the experiences of POCs from the perspective of POCs as possible.

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