The Oldest Profession (Eclipse Theatre Company – Worthington, OH)

Photo: Greg Smith – (left to right) Kathy Sturm (Edna), Terry Sullivan (Lillian), Linda Browning (Mae), Tobi Gerber (Vera), and Linda Goodwin (Ursula)

Where does one begin when starting a new theatre company? Should one start with a modern classic by Tennessee Williams, something by Shaw or Ibsen, perhaps a well-known musical? Or how about opening with something off the beaten path, something interesting and fresh that the area has likely never seen before. Eclipse Theatre Company’s premiere production is of Paula Vogel’s The Oldest Profession, a quirky and entertaining show with plenty of laughter and heart, definitely a standard deviation from anything else currently being performed in or around Columbus.

 

Photo: Mel Buehl – (left to right) Linda Goodwin (Ursula), Terry Sullivan (Lillian), Tobi Gerber (Vera), Linda Browning (Mae), and Kathy Sturm (Edna)
 

The Oldest Profession is about a group of aging prostitutes struggling to remain relevant in New York, a city that is beginning to change at the dawn of the 1980s. These five women have been in “the life” for over fifty years, harkening back to the days of Prohibition in the late 1920s, which would put most of them in their seventies (or older). These women may look like quaint, blinged-out grandmas (whatever you do, don’t call them that!) with their overstuffed hair and painted faces, but they are rather refined ladies for hire with an ever dwindling clientele. These aren’t your typical streetwalkers turning tricks in alleys for drugs; these are women who want to bring joy to their gentlemen callers while supporting themselves. The changing economics of the time are reflected in how they live their lives and run their business, demonstrating how living in a city teetering on the brink of bankruptcy effects everyone. The program has a quaint glossary of terms printed on the back along with a short essay putting the story into historical context. I’m not sure anyone could misinterpret the meaning behind “dip his wick,” though some of the French euphemisms were helpful to know. Still, I don’t think “poontang” means hooker; I’m pretty sure it means any piece of female action one can get.

 

Photo: Greg Smith – (left to right) Kathy Sturm (Edna) and Linda Browning (Mae)
 
Standouts in the cast are Kathy Sturm as Edna, the big earner of the group with heels to match; Linda Goodwin as Ursula, the Republican hooker, as cold as one would expect; and Terry Sullivan as Lillian, the theatre cat, always up for a good time out among the footlights. Linda Browning as Mae, the madam, has some strong moments, particularly one in which she defends her turf against some new trade. Tobi Gerber as Vera, the somewhat dim and gullible member of the group, has one of the best lines in the piece: “I’m gonna scratch her snatch!” The actresses interact well with each other, and if there are a few pregnant pauses here and there or a few false starts with their line delivery, it all somehow works. These are elderly women the performers are playing after all, though I was surprised at how youthful they each appeared sans wig and heavy makeup after the performance.

 

Photo: Mel Buehl – (left to right) Linda Goodwin (Ursula), Terry Sullivan (Lillian), Tobi Gerber (Vera), and Kathy Sturm (Edna)
 
A nice element of the rather unconventional performance space Eclipse Theatre Company has secured is how intimate it all feels. The area is draped into a square, and there are only fifty seats located directly in front and to the left and right of the action. There isn’t a bad seat to be had, and the acoustics are perfect for allowing each word to be heard with little to no apparent amplification. Greg Smith’s set consists of a bench in front of a black iron gate bridged by stone pillars and streetlights with a mostly full trash bin off to the side and a concrete floor complete with some gum residue; what more is needed to illustrate the perimeter of a park? Mr. Smith also directs this piece, inserting an intermission about forty-five minutes into the play where it was designed to be performed in one continuous 105-minute stretch. The break occurs at a decent enough spot save for making the second act a quarter hour longer than the first, but it isn’t a problem. These ladies are worth the time.

 

Photo: Mel Buehl – (left to right) Linda Goodwin (Ursula), Terry Sullivan (Lillian), Tobi Gerber (Vera), and Linda Browning (Mae)
 

The Oldest Profession is laugh-out-loud funny as these feisty old women argue, debate, and talk business about things women a third of their age would probably be too embarrassed to discuss. It’s also terribly poignant as these women one by one pass on, the real heartbreak is discovering which will be the one who’s left behind. This is an R-rated show to be sure, but it isn’t as expletive-laden as one might expect. These are ladies, after all, the last vestiges of a bygone era that ended during the ’80s when Ronald Reagan was president and New York City began its transformation into the tourist-friendly (though arguably character-less) landmark it is today.

*** out of ****

The Oldest Profession continues through May 1st at 670 Lakeview Plaza Blvd, Suite F, Worthington (less than 30 minutes from downtown Columbus), and more information can be found at http://eclipsetheatrecompany.org/

   

   
  
 

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Sordid Lives (Evolution Theatre Company – Columbus, OH)

Texas has its own brand of southern charm different from the rest, and Del Shores is just the playwright to bring it to life. He has made a career of writing about the exploits of some rather unsavory characters, though whether or not they are unsavory depends on how you look at them. They could just as well be heroes.

Sordid Lives, Shores’s fourth play, tells the story of how a small town and family reacts to the accidental death of one of their own, an elderly woman who tripped over her married lover’s wooden legs on the way to the toilet and bashed her head in. Yes, you read that correctly, and yes, it’s a comedy full of some of the strangest characters you’re likely to see this side of “Hee Haw.” Death and infidelity are tricky to make funny, but the enduring popularity of this 1996 play and it’s 2000 film incarnation show that Mr. Shores has found a way to make it work for a great many people.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Danielle Mari (LaVonda), Betsy Poling (Sissy), and Lori Cannon (Latrelle)
 
It’s a real joy to see a comedy with such a large cast, and the characters are so delightfully varied that it would be difficult to confuse one for the other. There are three performers that stand out in the ensemble and make this production worth seeing if for no other reason than to see them at work. Lori Cannon leads the charge as Latrelle Williamson, the uptight eldest daughter of the deceased, playing her part with all seriousness, as do David Vargo as Wardell “Bubba” Owens and Vicky Welsh Bragg as the drunken barfly Juanita Bartlett. They each play this material with such sincerity and emotion that the comedy hits and lands perfectly. Ms. Cannon, Mr. Vargo, and Ms. Bragg never make a false move, even if some of their scene partners aren’t playing their parts with the same kind of gravity. When Ms. Cannon shrieks, “I don’t want to know the truth,” it’s because you know she already does and can’t face it; it’s funny and heartbreaking at the same time. Mr. Vargo shows real remorse when he reflects on how he treated Brother Boy in the past, making his rescue of him from the hospital that much more meaningful. And Ms. Bragg brings the house down when – in the middle of a scene involving guns and violence – she asks in all seriousness, “Do you think I’m pretty?” These three know exactly what they are doing.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) David Vargo (Bubba), Ralph Edward Scott (G. W.), and Jeb Bigelow (Odell)
 
Also worthy of honorable mention is Kathy Sturm as Noleta Nethercott, who impressed me when she accidentally splashed some mashed potatoes on her wrist during an early scene while she was helping herself to a snack. Without missing a beat, she piggishly lapped it up with her tongue and went on. And maybe it wasn’t an accident or an ad lib after all; it was done so naturally that I could believe it was planned, though executed by someone fully in the moment with a real firm grasp on her character.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Kathy Sturm (Noleta) and Betsy Poling (Sissy)

I must say that one character that slightly disappoints is Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram played by Mark Phillips Schwamberger. Mr. Schwamberger certainly knows his lines and appears to be having a ball in drag, but his interpretation of the character stays firmly on the surface, perhaps owing to the director, Beth Kattelman. While some of his cast members chose to go with the seriousness of their parts to great effect, this Brother Boy doesn’t appear to have any real emotion, not even when he sees his mother in a casket. His final words to her are underplayed in a way that the audience at the performance I attended wasn’t sure that the play had even ended as the moment felt half baked, like it was leading up to something more. A moment of reflection, a half smile that is quickly stifled – something was warranted in that final moment that just wasn’t there. It’s not like it ruins the play or anything, but I did see it as a missed opportunity.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Still, the audience was primed and ready for every comedic moment to play out, no doubt having seen the popular film adaptation, and there was an energy in the crowd that was palpable. I enjoyed this production far more than the film, and it’s a worthy successor to the other fine shows that Evolution Theatre Company has put on so far this season. 

*** out of ****

Sordid Lives continues through to September 26th in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://evolutiontheatre.org