THE GREAT GATSBY: A Novel Approach
Performances: March 6 – 22, 2020
By: Quill Theatre
At: Leslie Cheek Theater at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Boulevard, RVA 23220
Ticket Prices: $40 Adults; $30 VMFA Members; $35 Seniors 65+; $30 RVATA (must show card); $20 Students (with ID)
Info: (804) 340-1405 or quilltheatre.org
Love lost and found, wealth and power, prohibition era bootlegging, corruption, infidelity, homosexuality, white supremacy, domestic abuse, the aftermath of war, mystery, lies, and more are all part of the plot, and it all hits the fan in Act Two. It would be impossible not to draw comparisons between the 1922 setting of The Great Gatsby and the state of the world nearly 100 years later, in 2020.
Simon Levy’s 2006 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 classic American novel, The Great Gatsby, now playing at the Leslie Cheek Theatre at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, is the only version of the play authorized by the Fitzgerald estate. There’s a lot of history on that stage, but as important as historical context may be, it is human relationships and the human condition that are at the heart of this show. Indeed, the program notes are careful to point out that the lively and dynamic Charleston scene at the top of Act Two would most likely never have occurred, as that dance did not become popular – at least not outside the black community – until 1926, about four years after the setting of The Great Gatsby. Part drama, part comedy – perhaps unintentionally so – The Great Gatsby features a dynamic and diverse cast of major and minor characters.
Kurt Smith is Jay Gatsby. Since this is his debut in the Richmond theater community, I am not at all familiar with his range or abilities, but he elicited many of the laughs on opening night with his awkwardly affected portrayal; he would stick out a hand as if to shake and leave it extended for an inordinate amount of time, or stand in profile with one foot slightly ahead of the other, reminiscent of a figure on an ancient Egyptian painting. The character of Gatsby also, oddly enough, alternates between the confidence of a successful businessman – one who has made his fortune through illegal or illegitimate means – and the nervousness of a schoolboy about to ask a girl on a date for the first time. Somehow, these two sides of Gatsby never truly reconciled.
Rachel Rose Gilmour as Gatsby’s love interest, Daisy Buchanan, adopted the hand-to-forehead swooning persona of the southern bell for most of her scenes. Caught between two loves, she could not decide which to choose, instead allowing circumstances to make the decision for her.
Daisy, who seemingly has everything – a wealthy husband, big home, money and social standing – is actually a victim: a victim of domestic abuse; a victim of 1920’s social restraints placed on women.
Daisy’s husband, Tom, played by Cole Metz, is a pompous, bombastic, white male supremacist who is very much aware of and feels justified in his privilege. Tom is carrying on an affair with the wife of gas station owner whose business he frequents on his trips back and forth from New York City to Long Island. Metz’s character is the one you most want to boo. Each of these main characters has a distinct style and mannerisms – they just do not seem to have selected the same style or mannerisms from the same school or time period.
The play is narrated by Chandler Hubbard who plays Daisy’s cousin, Nick Carraway. The narrator guides the audience through this twisted tale, providing a sort of auditory synopsis, filling in the blanks for the audience members who may have forgotten or never read The Great Gatsby, while Nick seems to represent the voice of reason and the face of good. As the play progresses, and it becomes obvious that wrong-doers will not be held accountable for their actions, he distances himself from the others – even from his high-society girlfriend, Jordan Baker, played by Michelle Greensmith as an overly-confident, sometimes delightfully sarcastic, and generally loud caricature of a flapper – but without the fringes.
Speaking of loud, the un-mic’ed (is that even a real word?) actors were often difficult to hear in the Leslie Cheek Theatre – even from the fifth or sixth row from the front. As to other production elements: Gregg Hillmar’s lighting was sometimes used to effectively highlight scenes while at other times, perhaps because of the thrust of the stage, with steps and ramps downstage, or perhaps because of the structure and limitations of the house, the lighting seemed to extend into the houselights, illuminating the rows of people sitting in front of you as much as the actors onstage. James Ricks, the company’s Artistic Director, did the effective sound design himself, and there was no doubt that Tennessee Dixon had created the projections that added depth and visual interest in lieu of three-dimensional set construction. Among the stunning effects, flying birds and jonquils (a flower that earned prominent mention in another classic play earlier this season, The Glass Menagerie). Interestingly, jonquils are a type of narcissus, named for the character in Greek mythology from whom the word “narcissism” is derived.
Credit for the lively Charleston scene at the top of Act Two – a scene that prominently featured Keaton Hillman and Markell D. Holloway who played the role of the servants, among other roles – goes to Jeremy Gershman and Kayla Xavier. Reed West’s compact set design included a revolving platform that held a surprising variety of furniture and settings and Cora Delbridge designed the lovely and lovingly detailed period costumes that made generous use of sparkling fabrics and swinging fringes.
The cast also included LaSean Greene as the gas station owner, George Wilson, whose wife was involved with Tom Buchanan. Greene has a small part, but a significant scene in the latter part of Act Two. The versatile Amber Marie Martinez played George’s wife, Myrtle – another victim of the times. Melissa Johnston Price, Eddie Webster, and Jeff Clevenger are all well-known accomplished actors who played very small roles. The ensemble included Daniel Camargo (who also played the minor role of Frank), Mara Barrett, Jackie Cook, Kayla Xavier, Mallory Keene, Billy Heckman, Keaton Hillman, Reed Patterson, and Markell Holloway.
With all these features going for it, The Great Gatsby provided an entertaining evening of theater that generated laughs and made the audience confront many unpleasant facets of human nature. With such an accomplished cast and the skillful direction of former artistic director Dr. Jan Powell, I left with a slight feeling of emptiness, as if someone had left out an ingredient. I hope the remaining shows will tighten up and fulfill the high expectations that have been generated. The Great Gatsby has a short run, so freshen up your 1920s attire and catch it before it closes on March 22.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Photos by Maria V. Salova
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