Photo: Chad Halbrook and Jessica Wiggers in A Feminine Ending by Sarah Treem (photo by Mike Wang)
Disclaimer: I wrote this review on February 8, 2009, after a performance on the same date. This review is unsolicited.
Amanda Blue (played by Jessica Wiggers) tells us in the opening lines of A Feminine Ending that, "For anyone who cares to know or knows enough to care," there are gender roles in music - masculine and feminine. A feminine ending is characterized by a musical phrase or movement ending on an "unstressed, or weak cadence." She goes on to muse about how clearly gender roles are asserted not only in music or in language, but also in life and in the choices one makes or the expectations he or she is supposed to meet.
An aspiring composer, Amanda must put her dreams on hold as she works a less than fulfilling day job to support her "almost famous" fiancé, Jack Handel (Chad Halbrook) as a means to reach the extraordinary life he has promised they will have some day. As Jack rises in his quest for fame, Amanda becomes increasingly discontent with her life, a problem that is exacerbated by a frantic phone call from her mother Kim (Cindy Beall), imploring Amanda to come home to New Hampshire for the weekend. It turns out that Kim has, once again, decided to assert herself and leave her husband David (Jerry Crow). As Amanda's frustration level rises and she decides to go back to New York, she runs into The One That Got Away, her high school boyfriend Billy (Dan Forsythe).
Throughout the course of Sarah Treem's beautifully written script, Amanda finds herself in a position in which she must evaluate her career, her impending marriage, her role as a daughter, and finally make a decision as to whether or not she wants to continue putting the needs of others before her own dreams and aspirations.
As the costume designer as well as in her directorial debut, Emily Scott Banks shines. The actors clearly understand the relationships between their characters, and they move and interact with a purpose and an ease and comfort that makes them heartbreakingly realistic. Her costume design is simple, but wonderfully symbolic. Amanda's scarves in the first act, while stylish and attractive, seem to represent the choke-hold that is placed upon her by her fear of going out on a limb and rejecting conventions. Jack's outfits change by scene, and are almost comically trendy: an intentionally weathered pair of jeans, a retro-western shirt with pearl snaps, and a foam-front cap placed on top of sexy, tousled hair.
The technical aspects of this production are flawless. Leann Ellis's lighting design coupled with sound designer Emily Young's choices of songs and musical interludes brought goosebumps to my arms at times. There are beautiful and intricate gobos used to indicate falling snow, a blooming tree, an apple orchard, all of which subtly enhance what might otherwise be long and tedious monologues within the script. Set designer Clare Floyd-DeVries creates a beautiful, simplistic set that is functional as well as eye-catching. What appears at first to be a simple wooden set later showcases a hidden bed (which doubles as a couch in the scenes taking place in Amanda's New Hampshire home) or an end table. The walls of the studio theatre are draped with flowing curtains of chiffon, giving a soft and feminine feeling that is not lost in its symbolism.
The major kudos of this production, however, must go to the actors. There is not a weak moment in this production. Chad Halbrook, a gorgeous man who is not shy about showing off his body, plays Jack flawlessly. The character of Jack lends itself to being easily played as a shallow, wannabe rock star, but Halbrook gives Jack more depth than that, and creates some tender moments with Amanda as easily as he makes the audience laugh. Cindy Beall and Jerry Crow are equal parts funny and poignant as Amanda's estranged parents. Beall gives a powerful performance as a housewife who, after 30 years of burying her passions in order to be a dutiful wife and mother, finally decides to follow her own dreams. Crow makes a grand impression in his little stage time as Amanda's father, a man who has likely had the same routine for 30 years, and is truly stunned that his wife would leave him, after what we are led to believe have been several threats over the course of their marriage.
As Amanda's high school boyfriend Billy, Dan Forsythe brings an entirely different dynamic to the cast. He is simple, kind, and lacks pretention. While at first he appears to be a bit of a goofball, we discover with Amanda that he is intelligent and well-spoken, and Amanda's rekindled attraction to him in the apple orchard is understandable and believable. My only issue with Forsythe's performance is his choice of dialect, which unfortunately emphasizes the "goofball" aspect a bit too much at times. I was unsure if this was a character choice or an attempt at a New England accent. Nevertheless, his portrayal of Billy is endearing and lovely.
The standout performer in this cast is Jessica Wiggers as Amanda. She rarely leaves the stage, and she stays connected to the character at all times. When she breaks the proverbial "fourth wall" and addresses the audience directly, it is natural and conversational, and she moves back into her interactions with other characters seamlessly and effortlessly. She even deadpans some of her pantomimed actions to the audience ("I'm back in New York now...and this is the door to my apartment") humorously, but without taking them out of the moment or distracting from the emotional environment she's created in a previous scene. She's wonderfully real, and any person in the audience should be able to empathize with at least one, if not several, of the stops along Amanda's journey to find and "trust a woman's voice in a man's world."
The play runs through February 13, 2009 at the WaterTower Theatre in Addison, Texas. The studio theatre is small and tickets will likely sell out quickly, so run - don't walk - to the website or to the nearest phone, and buy your tickets now for this beautiful and thought-provoking piece of theatre. You will be glad you did.