Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Does Anyone Here Remember Vera Stark? Play's Focus on Black & White Hollywood Feels a Bit Gray -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

By The Way, Meet Vera Stark
by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Chuck Smith
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 2

By the way, the recent play titled By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, has several admirable qualities.

It is inventively written by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage. It is thematically substantive, about how African-American actors and actresses have largely been marginalized in Hollywood. Despite a poignant topic, it is often quite humorous. And while the first act of the 2-1/2 hour play is better than the second, Vera Stark--the play, and the fictional actress personified at the Goodman by the beautiful Tamberla Perry--is never less than watchable.

But while there is plenty that is good about it, somehow the sum of its parts never reaches the level of greatness.

Though there is savvy writing throughout, I can't say I ever found Meet Vera Stark all that pointed, informative or engrossing.

With the play set in Hollywood over three time periods, Act I takes place in 1933. Gloria Mitchell, played by Kara Zediker, is a vacuous starlet--"America's little sweetheart"--and Vera Stark is her maid.

As the play opens, Vera is helping Gloria memorize lines for an audition for a historical epic called The Belle of New Orleans. It is instantly clear that Vera is just as talented and appealing as Gloria, if not more so, but as the play develops--including interactions with the movie director and studio head--it becomes clear that even if Vera can be "discovered," she will be relegated to playing a slave and (in the future) other subordinate roles designated to keep African-American actors on the periphery.

But while it entertains, raises some contemplative issues and features good performances throughout--from Perry, Zediker, TaRon Patton as Vera's roommate Lottie, Chiké Johnson as her paramour Leroy, Patrick Clear as the studio chief, Ron Rains as the director and Amelia Workman as a friend of Vera and Lottie--the first act feels like a preface. We are led to the point where Vera should get her shot in the movies, but not past it.

Which makes Act II feel like a post-script.

It opens with a rather long movie clip showing Gloria and Vera essentially reprising their real-life roles on screen in The Belle of New Orleans.

I was somewhat surprised with where Nottage and director Chuck Smith take the second act, which features characters in 1993 referencing events in 1973, from which Vera harkens back to 1933 and the years since.

So I won't reveal much about the formatting of Act II, but while rather inventive in itself, with funny flashbacks to '70s fashion, TV, rock stardom and more, it felt a good bit lesser than Act I and didn't add to my tempered enjoyment of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.

It's clear that there is something important in the gist of what Nottage is trying to say through the character of Vera Stark, but while the play has enough moments to be worthwhile at a subscriber or discount price (HotTix, Goodman box office), the sum of its parts just doesn't feel that legendary.

Nottage has put together a website supporting Vera's backstory at It's a nice complement to the play, and can open one's eyes to the central themes even without getting to the Goodman.

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