The dramas of celebrated American playwright Clifford Odets (1906-63), one of the masters of Modern Drama, are seldom produced on Triangle stages. In 1999, Raleigh Ensemble Players staged Awake and Sing! (1935). But, to the best of my knowledge, there have been no recent local professional or community-theater productions of Waiting for Lefty (1935), Golden Boy (1937), or The Country Girl (1951)... until now.
Emerald City Productions will present an all-star production of the latter backstage drama April 17-27 at the North Carolina Theatre Studios North in Raleigh, NC. University Theatre at N.C. State mainstay and NCSU faculty member Fred Gorelick will stage The Country Girl with a stellar cast that includes three of the Triangle's finest actors: Dorothy R. Brown, Tony Lea, and Jordan Smith.
"This play is very rarely produced," Gorelick claims, "and this production is an opportunity to see some of our own best actors meeting the challenges of an emotionally demanding text."
According to preshow publicity, "The Country Girl... is the journey of Georgie Elgin. Her long years of devotion to her actor husband, Frank, have almost obliterated her own personality. Life is either feast or famine, with months of the year spent in bolstering up the morale of a man out of work and whose long periods of idleness are punctuated by despair and drink. Then comes the event that all actors pray for — the really big part in an important new play. Broadway's youngest director, Bernie Dodd, picks Frank for the lead. Only Georgie knows the struggle it will be to pull Frank together, to keep him from slipping — all under the tense watchful eyes of a nervous director whose reputation depends on this, his first big play."
When The Country Girl opened in 1951, Cue Magazine saluted the play's "scenes of electrifying theatricality." "It's a superb show," raved Variety, and the Newsday critic agreed: "Here is real and exciting theatre, alive and healthy and greatly rewarding."
"My first exposure to The Country Girl was through the [Oscar-winning] 1954 film [directed by George Seaton and starring Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, and William Holden], which I initially saw as a teenager," Gorelick recalls. "Through the years of studying and teaching acting, scenes from this text prove to make for excellent class material. Odets writes in very clean objectives and rhythmic beats for his characters, providing actors and directors with rich ore to mine."
Gorelick adds, "I most admire Odets' characterizations. The three principal characters — Georgie Elgin (Dorothy R. Brown), Frank Elgin (Jordan Smith), and Bernie Dodd (Tony Lea) — are complex individuals we come to care about in the course of the play. We may not like them at every moment, but we are allowed to know them. We recognize aspects of our own personalities in this trio.
"Having coached a few of the scenes from The Country Girl in classes I've taught through the years," Gorelick reveals, "it has always been one of those pet projects you keep in the back of your mind. This production grew out of one of those classes."
He explains, "I asked Dorothy and Tony, in a workshop I taught in the summer of 1997, to do the climactic scene from the play. Their work was astonishing, and I mentioned to them at the time that these were roles in which they would excel. Soon after that class, we began talking about the possibilities of doing the play; and Jordan was in our thoughts for Frank from the outset.
"Sometimes," Gorelick claims, "it takes five years to put together a dream team for a pet project. I am delighted more than I can relate to be working with actors of this cast's level of interpretive skill and imagination. We are true collaborators, speaking the same language in our approach to the work."
Fred Gorelick says, "The strength of The Country Girl rests on its depiction of the characters and their troubled relationships. The milieu is the New York theater of 1950. Georgie Elgin has been married to Frank for 12 years. A once-famous and highly praised actor, Frank has fallen victim to a growing lack of confidence and a fear of responsibility which have led to alcohol abuse. Bernie Dodd is a theater director riding the crest of a meteoric career who remembers Frank at his peak."
Gorelick says, "The story of the play follows the path of a production through rehearsals, Boston try-out previews, and opening night on Broadway. This production examines each character's journey through the months of the play, particularly that of Georgie Elgin, the country girl struggling to 'get out from under,' as she says at one point.
"Also in the cast," Gorelick notes, "are David N. Bradsher as the stage manager, Larry; Jim V. Sullivan as the producer, Phil Cook; Jackie Willse (a University Theatre at N.C. State student) as Nancy Stoddard, the ingénue; David Shouse (another fine UT/NCSU student) as Paul Unger, the playwright; and assistant stage manager Chris McHenry (still another UT/NCSU student) as Ralph, the dresser."
Director Fred Gorelick, set and costume designer John C. McIlwee, and lighting designer Jeff Besselman will face considerable creative challenges in staging The Country Girl for Emerald City Productions. Gorelick says the set requires "four interiors: The stage of a Broadway theater, a boardinghouse room, a Boston dressing room, and a Broadway dressing room." The costumes must be as "accurate as possible to period — the late 1940s to 1950," Gorelick says, whereas the lighting is "naturalistic and functional."
"The challenges of directing this play stem from the fact that it was written and originally produced in 1950," claims Fred Gorelick, "when nearly all commercial theatrical productions were staged in proscenium theatres with a curtain. There are five scenes in the first act and three in the second — creating unique problems for the easy flow of scenes contemporary audiences expect.
"I believe our set designer, John C. McIlwee, and our production stage manager, Mette C.J. Schladweiler, have created the most efficient plan possible," Gorelick adds, "while satisfying the demands of the script and the vision of my approach to the play. Georgie is in a series of closed off, small spaces that eventually open up to embrace her growing self-awareness."
Emerald City Productions presents The Country Girl Thursday-Saturday, April 17-19, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, April 20, at 3 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, April 23-26, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, April 27, at 3 p.m. at the North Carolina Theatre Studios North, 3043 Barrow Dr., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 Thursday-Saturday ($10 students and seniors) and $10 Wednesday and Sunday. 919/810-1895 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.