Theater review: ‘Outside Paradise’ Seeks Deeper Satisfactions

The fascination with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald has fueled a great number of films, books and even musicals over the years. Now Actors Bridge Ensemble adds its contribution with a luminous fantasy of the mind called Outside Paradise headlined by two terrific performances.

The world premiere penned by the company’s founding artistic director Bill Feehely (with contributions from other members of the troupe such as producing artistic director Vali Forrister) offers an intoxicating look at the man who coined the term “Jazz Age” and the woman who lived it beside him. It’s filled with moments of merriment and madness, love and loss, but ultimately it celebrates the lyrical beauty of the words F. Scott Fitzgerald left behind.

The one-act begins at the end with the fatal heart attack that killed the 44-year-old writer on Dec. 21, 1940. Before he completely shuffles off his mortal coil, however, one of his creations, “The Great Gatsby” narrator Nick Carraway (D.J. Clark), is summoned by Fitzgerald’s still-imaginative mind.

Why is Nick here? “When a man senses his end, he begins to think. Did Scott know today was the day? Probably not consciously, but his mortality has been staring down at him like a large billboard for some time. His heart’s stopped, but he hasn’t left us yet. His mind hasn’t surrendered and there’s something he must deal with something before he leaves,” he tells us.

To get to what he must deal with Fitzgerald (Clay Steakley) must work his way through his life. To do that, of course, means dealing with the great love – and complication – of his existence, Zelda Sayre (Jennifer Richmond). As we watch the triumphs and tragedies of this celebrated, often booze-soaked couple, we come to understand not only their undying love but their utter dependence on one another.

Feehely – who also directs – and his cohorts are smart enough to realize they can’t fit many aspects of Fitzgerald’s life into a limited theatrical timeframe; after all, this is a play and not a biography. Instead they sketch out major points of his life from his unhappy childhood home and Princeton to meeting and marrying Zelda as well as the professional successes and failures that were so closely tied to the rollercoaster life the couple led on two continents. It’s a pretty good job of condensing more than two decades of history without letting needed exposition trample dramatic opportunities.

There are plenty of Fitzgerald’s own words in Outside Paradise that remind us of the vivid pictures his prose could paint. Take these examples from “Gatsby” that find their way into the play: “Her voice is full of money…It was full of money, that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it. the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it…” and “While we admired he brought more, and the soft rich heap mounted higher, shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple green and lavender and faint orange with monograms of Indian blue.”

And there’s plenty of period music, too, beginning with “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” and continuing with such tunes as “Charleston Charlie,” “No Moon at All,” “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” and “Bye Bye Blackbird.” The collection of tunes used in this show date from 1920 to 1940 and feature the beautiful vocal contributions of “The Blue Bettys” Celeste Krenz and Kim Bretton. And appropriate dance moves to some of that music are provided by choreographer Alyssa Maddox (aerial choreographer Rebekah Hampton has some worthwhile contributions too).

Steakley’s work as Fitzgerald is striking. He captures both the bravado and vulnerability that come down to us through the man’s own words and the published recollections of those who knew him. And Richmond, who has had a phenomenal year on Nashville stages, delivers all of Zelda’s sex appeal, spirit, intelligence and schizophrenia in a masterful performance. When the characters come together it’s breathtaking; Steakley and Richmond are like two parts of the same wounded bird that once knew uninhibited flight but now struggles to soar with damaged wings.

This show is part of Actors Bridge Ensemble’s partnership with the Belmont University Department of Theatre and Dance. Several Belmont students are involved with the production, including actors Kallen Prosterman, Adrienne Hall, Ashley Glore in multiple roles and Clark. They along with Ricardo Andres Puerta (who among other roles plays Fitzgerald’s supportive editor Maxwell Perkins) and Luke Hatmaker (who gives a good turn as Ernest Hemingway among other parts) provide strong contributions.

Bekah Reimer’s art-deco-flavored set hits just the right note; its dream-like look is accentuated by Richard Davis’ often-ethereal lighting. And Jessica Mueller’s costumes are lively representations of style that cover much of the 20th Century’s opening decades.

In a series of 1936 Esquire essays called “The Crack-Up” Fitzgerald wrote that “life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat; the redeeming things are not ‘happiness and pleasure’ but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle.” Outside Paradise succeeds because it engages us in the story of the Fitzgeralds’ struggle for those deeper satisfactions.

The world premiere of Outside Paradise continues through Nov. 18 at Belmont University’s Black Box Theater (1575 Compton Ave.). Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays as well as 8 p.m. Nov. 14. Tickets ($18 with discounts for seniors, students, Belmont faculty, staff and alumni and members of Actors Equity Association) are available by clicking here. For more information visit www.actorsbridge.org.

*Photos (including those by Britt Simmons) courtesy Actors Bridge Ensemble.

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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).