How do you take a cloyingly overused plot line and make it feel less decayed, more relevant, and, above all, interesting?
That’s what Porchlight Music Theatre’s Far From Heaven attempts to resuscitate in their current production. And that’s precisely what I tried to figure out as I spit out the words “Far From Heaven” – a title that feels like a mix between ’80s synth pop song and used book store romance novel – to my roommate prior to seeing the show. The plot? Glossy-but-bored suburban housewife meets black gardener, finds enlightenment and finally inevitable controversy and heartbreak. The concept itself was a copy-and-paste plot device that I had already seen on last season’s Masters of Sex. And probably on some made-for-TV Lifetime movie. Actually, Wikipedia has an entire list for your viewing pleasure entitled, “List of interracial romance films”, just in case you were having trouble coming up with a few examples. And yet…
Porchlight did it. They resuscitated the genre, and by golly, it wasn’t too shabby.
To flesh out the plot specifics some: The year is 1957, Hartford, Connecticut, where Cathy Whitaker (Summer Naomi Smart) finds that, as the manicured epitome of her Wonder Bread white neighborhood, her freshly cut lawn and picket fences are just not the soul satisfying means to an end she was trained to want for her herself. Despite her own straight face behind her dead sex life and droll routine, she begins to find an outlet for her relentless longing in the form of her new gardener, Raymond Deagan (Evan Tyrone Martin), a widowed and charming father who gives her more to look forward to than mahjongg with the girls and Thursday afternoon car pool duty.
Mind you, this doesn’t take away from the fact that the structure in itself is linear and borderline cliché as all get out. However, the deftness of the overall production is found more in the handling of that line, which tried to take a lot of the focus away from its basic premise and the blunt fact that, yes, as an audience member, you probably already know how the story is going to end before it even begins. Take those aforementioned wholesome 1950s clichés, for instance. Yeah, you’re going to get the Greek chorus of Stepford wives, primed with their daiquiris and petticoat parade of cocktail dresses and man-made girdles. Hell, you’re even going to get the passive aggressive workplace sexual harassment, McCarthyisms, and Campbell Soup-laced casseroles. But bust my buttons if the opening act, where Cathy’s daughter Janice (Tori Whaples and Peyton Shaffer), a childlike, imperfect-by-default schoolgirl, is sitting in front of her dollhouse in direct juxtaposition with Cathy herself, who looks like a literal Barbie doll, plastic and painted onto her own massive dollhouse of a set. The physical difference between the two females, mother and daughter, is so utterly jarring that it is by far one of the more disturbing tableaus I have ever seen on stage. It is that very image–the image of glistening, unobtainable womanhood–plopped up against reality that leads to girls chucking their cookies post-seltzer and dreaming of white weddings and bouncing tits. And although that is merely a supporting subplot in the show’s overall story, because of its mere presence, I knew immediately that this production was going to attempt against all odds to have some fullness in a story that almost desperately wants to follow the straight and narrow.
And as it should be. The musical itself is an interpretation of the 2002 Todd Haynes film of the same name, with music and lyrics by the songwriting team Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, most famous for their Tony-nominated effort Grey Gardens, another re-imagination based on the cult classic documentary. Essentially, this musical is the brainchild between the man who got Cate Blanchett to stick a wad of socks in her trousers and play Bob Dylan to critical acclaim in I’m Not There (Haynes) and the men who put Little and Big Edie, East Hampton’s most infamous anti-elite, to song (Frankel and Korie). These are men who know how to take deceptively beautiful but often gritty stories and make gold. Needless to say, the gold was aglitter in Porchlight’s rendition as well. Director Rob Lindley honed in on Frankel and Korie’s open love letter to 1950s glamour and satire, combined musically with Frank Sinatra-like piano melodies and Vince Guaraldi-circa-Peanuts-era jazz, by giving attention to the humor the deliciously smart lyrics insisted upon, while also making Cathy’s own grossly inevitable stuck-ness an ever looming presence throughout.
And our Cathy, Ms. Smart, never let her (albeit brilliant) costumes wear the character. With her Disney princess cadence and Barbie doll-like proportions, she made for an ingenious casting choice as a woman meant to resemble plastic, which she does to astounding success. However, Smart can also play gut-wrench like no other, making Cathy anything but the dolls she so immaculately resembled. Martin’s Raymond Deagan was also skillfully performed in his boyish charm yet delicate warmth that made you wish the plot had given Mr. Martin a greater riff for his naturally endearing personality to play upon. But the sleeper surprise of the night was portrayed in Cathy’s best friend, Eleanor (Bri Sudia) who was masterful when it came to hamming up the humor, but even more miraculous when she was challenged in playing the 360-degree opposite of that where her sensitivity was refreshing in multiple regards.
It is that very sensitivity, beautifully balanced with strokes of insecurity and deep pride, that made Far From Heaven such an unexpected delight. I will note that the musical itself, although only three years old, already has the dust marks of a future production forgotten, which is such a shame, for the show, although severely lacking in any sense of revolutionary comment to today’s needs, does have the capacity and smartness necessary to be remarkable even so–which makes me even more grateful for Porchlight’s decision to include it in their current season. And like the petals that fell to the ground by the show’s end, thus indicating a new spring and the truth that there is still a life out there worth living, Porchlight shows every indication that this is a production worth performing and that they don’t intend for you to leave your seat without knowing that.
Far From Heaven runs at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., until March 13. Show times are Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 4 and 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm, with the exception of Thursday, March 3, where there will be only one performance at 1:30pm. Tickets range from $32-$45 and may be purchased online or at (773) 327-5252.
Photos by Brandon Dahlquist.