Theater review: Actors Bridge & Smart, Funny, Biting ‘Becky Sharp’

Becky ShawGina Gionfriddo has certainly received recognition – an Obie Award, a Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship among other accolades – but as one of America’s best living playwrights she deserves so much more. In cities like Nashville there are plenty of theatergoers who still don’t know her name nearly a decade after her brilliant play After Ashley was the highlight of the 2004 Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Hopefully Actors Bridge Ensemble’s terrific production of Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw – commissioned by ATL as the centerpiece for its 2008 Humana Festival and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize that should already have been on Gionfriddo’s mantelpiece – which opened Friday will start to change that undeserved near-anonymity here. It’s smart, funny, biting contemporary theater that director Bill Feehely and his perfectly cast ensemble deliver with exquisite skill.

Literary-attuned folks will recognize the title character’s name from William Makepeace Thackeray’s 19th Century masterpiece “Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero.” The Becky Shaw of the novel doesn’t care for the stifling courtship rules of her day; one feels the Becky Shaw of this play (Jennifer Richmond in yet another sparkling stage appearance) doesn’t either, if there are any rules actually left. Both have personal aspirations and social ambitions that aren’t as easy to pin down as they initially seem; and whether they are more sinned against than sinning in their interactions is worthy of debate despite some despicable behavior from others.

In Gionfriddo’s play Max (a wonderfully rakish Nathaniel McIntyre) is the cad-dejour; by choice he has the emotional output of a Swiss timepiece (yes, I mean he has none), but his ill-treatment of Becky when he’s paired with her by Max’s friend/pseudo-sister Susanna (Evelyn O’Neal Brush displaying her incredible range in a role that might as well have been written for her) and Susanna’s well-intentioned – as in “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” – and über-sensitive new husband Andrew (excellent work from the supremely gifted Eric D. Pasto-Crosby) is a new low in human relations. To add further spice to the stew there’s Susanna’s indomitable mother Susan (the pitch-perfect work of Debbie Kraski), who despite years of battling MS might just survive them all.

It’s worth pointing out that none of these people is particularly evil; they’re just flawed like the rest of us, and in Gionfriddo’s symphony of emotions and ideas they’re all fascinating. As the playwright wrote for the published edition of the play (it’s reproduced in the Actors Bridge production program as well):

“There isn’t any character in this play I wouldn’t fix up with one of my friends. With some caveats, of course. I might say, ‘I have this great person in mind, but there’s a thing or two you should know…’ But I would say this about any of my actual real friends in my actual real life. Like Susanna says, ‘First date, everyone’s nervous… We all have our thing.’ I’m not convinced these characters have more things than your average Janes and Joes.”

Of course, when you have the cast Feehely has expertly assembled, the fascination turns electric at every opportunity.

Set designer Mitch Massaro (he also handles sound for the show) and lighting designer Richard K. Davis have seemingly worked symbiotically within the Belmont University Black Box Theatre to create the various modern locations in Providence R.I., New York, Boston and Richmond, Va. Amber Bray’s costumes and Shannon J. Spencer’s props add the final touches to this finely-etched drama-comedy of no manners whatsoever (thank goodness).

“I have respect for Becky, and I have hope,” Gionfriddo has written, because she “has an iron will not to accept her fate…” I agree, and amid the very human interactions in Becky Shaw there’s hope and so much more. Actors Bridge Ensemble has long championed works that should be seen here and elsewhere far more than they are – what a great treat for us that they are doing so yet again with this play.

Becky Shaw continues through July 21 at Belmont University’s Black Box Theatre (1575 Compton Ave.). For full performance schedule and tickets visit http://beckyshaw.eventbrite.com/; for more information the theater go to ActorsBridge.org.

 

*Photo of Jennifer Richmond as Becky and Nathaniel McIntyre as Max by Ross Bolen courtesy ABE.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).