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In the accepted mid-century pantheon of American dramatists, which nearly always included Miller, Williams, and — rather curiously — Inge, the name of Clifford Odets was seldom mentioned. Neither was Lillian Hellman, and the omission of these two strikes me as curious in the extreme. Hellman's beautifully streamlined social critiques were dismissed as mere melodrama, although I suspect her later reputation, as a pathological liar, was largely to blame. But what of Odets?
"Odets, where is thy sting?" it was famously, and unfairly, asked. American Communist Party apparatchiks loved the rabble-rousing of Waiting for Lefty, but brayed like outraged donkeys when Odets moved on to more complex fare. The golden, Jewish-inflected threnody of Awake and Sing! was a betrayal, they screamed — bourgeois! — and I doubt that Golden Boy made them any happier. Famously leftist (and contrary), Odets was too fine a writer to limit himself to agitprop, and too concerned with the mysteries of the human heart in conflict with itself to ever please the humorless functionaries running the Party's literary wing. Odets' testimony before HUAC was characteristic, both pugnacious and naive. He hectored the Committee, but named names anyway, and couldn't understand why no one saw past the informing to celebrate the way he excoriated the Inquisition.
His motives may have had a strange nobility (and a doubtful outcome) but one can't deny his performance let him off the political hook, enabling him to produce three absolute wonders in the years that followed: The Big Knife, maybe the most terrifying play ever written about Hollywood. The eloquently soul-sick dialogue he added to Ernest Lehman's screenplay for that bleakest and most astonishing of all New York movies, Sweet Smell of Success ("Sidney, you're a cookie full of arsenic"). And, finally, The Country Girl. The latter is probably the most famous, although few have actually seen it. What they HAVE seen is the 1954 movie version, which gave Grace Kelly the Oscar many maintain belonged by rights to Judy Garland [for A Star Is Born] and which in a very real sense perverts its meaning.
What Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright say of Odets in their book Changing Stages is equally true of The Country Girl: "Odets was a romantic in the sense that he believed that people have the capacity to change each other, and that love is a force of redemption." That should have made this splendid drama a mainstay in little theatres across the nation. I suspect the reason it's seldom performed today lies in its physical, not emotional, structure: eight scenes, each located in a separate environ.
It's a problem only partially addressed in Fred Gorelick's Emerald City production of the play at the North Carolina Theatre Studios North, and it's no small matter. Despite John C. McIlwee's ingenious moveable sets, the scene changes are laborious, long, and deadly to the play's accelerating dramatic arc. But the production's other dilemma is entirely histrionic.
Odets' concern — the ways devotion can cripple the mind and heart — is played out against a theatrical milieu, as Georgie Elgin (Dorothy R. Brown) tries with increasing desperation to keep her actor husband Frank (Jordan Smith) sober as he heads toward a crucial Broadway opening. The drama's potency stems from the means by which Frank's equally determined young director Bernie Dodd (Tony Lea), suspicious of Georgie's motives, frustrates her every move, realizing only too late that he's torpedoed his own leaky vessel. Beautifully delineated through Odets' penchant for incisive characterization and uniquely idiosyncratic dialogue, these are three powerhouse roles. This Country Girl, alas, gives us only one and a half.
Tony Lea is an actor of enormous skill and sensitivity, so it's dispiriting to witness him so disengaged from a role as he is here. That the sudden feeling this scarred misogynist gets for Georgie at the climax is unearned is the fault of Odets, but matters aren't helped by the superficiality of Lea's performance. Earlier, when Dodd thinks he's finally caught on to Georgie's "game," Lea doesn't give the slightest pause that might convince us he's had a revelation.
Dorothy Brown is as remarkable for her talent as for her beauty — the dramatic richness she displays in Act Two is proof enough — so to see her begin the play as though she's walking in her sleep is disquieting. It isn't that her searing, moving, and ultimately redemptive pyrotechnics in the second act are unprepared for, rather that she starts out so deep within Georgie's shattered sense of self that the actress herself, not the woman's personality, is hidden. Her matter-of-fact line readings don't carry the psychic weight of Georgie's ground-down drabness; they merely seem indifferent, or dull. That's a great pity, because Brown's performance is, ultimately, alive and heartbreaking.
It's Jordan Smith who gives the most detailed, emotionally complex performance. While swimming in Frank's overwhelming sense of self-doubt, Smith limns the role's playful, actorly dimensions; his Frank is no caricature of the washed-up actor but a living presence, contradictory and achingly human. His recitation of Frank's moving monologue about his fall from grace is so convincing, not only to Dodd but to us, that we begin to wonder whether Georgie's antagonist is right after all: is she the martyr she seems, or a selfish, vindictive enabler? That's craft.
Aside from Jim V. Sullivan's startlingly apt embodiment of the dyspeptic producer Phil Cook — in Sullivan's hands, a smiling killer and a 24 karat show-biz phony — the supporting actors barely register. The show's pace and physical staging are, as usual with Gorelick's work, finely honed. So if this production is not all it might be, I'm grateful just to see it at all.
Emerald City Productions presents The Country Girl Thursday-Saturday, April 24-26, 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 Sunday. 919/810-1895 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.