Review: Theater: Quince's 'Vanities' is character-driven theater

Alexis Newbauer, Jessica Snow, and Sarah J. Gafgen play young women changing ?in turbulent times in Quince Productions' "Vanities" at Walnut Street Studio 5. JOHN DONGES
Alexis Newbauer, Jessica Snow, and Sarah J. Gafgen play young women changing ?in turbulent times in Quince Productions' "Vanities" at Walnut Street Studio 5. JOHN DONGES
Posted: April 10, 2012

A recent study showed that women not only make up the bulk of ticket purchasers for plays, but they also form the majority of attendees. At first glance, Jack Heifner's Vanities (1976) appears to aim at the more frivolous side of this demographic.

His play opens on three high school cheerleaders on Nov. 22, 1963. Their chief concern? Decorating the gym for a pep rally while gossiping about boys. Passive-aggressive Joanne (Sarah J. Gafgen) whines that if she couldn't be a cheerleader, she would die. Ditzy Mary (Alexis Newbauer) rails against her mother's restrictiveness. Overly organized Kathy (Jessica Snow) plans their weekends to the tiniest detail.

Five years later, they've all joined Kappa Kappa Gamma, and they plot to keep hippies and flower children from polluting their sorority. In between each of this 105-minute, one-act's three segments (the third occurs at a reunion in 1974), they retreat to backstage vanity mirrors to change hairstyles, clothes, and makeup to suit changing fashions (all superbly styled by John Hodges).

Heifner's comedy wears its trivial surface like a mask hiding the trauma of a turbulent era. And in Quince Productions' superb staging, any men - or women - who would pass over this play would lose the opportunity to witness the power of character-driven theater.

An attitude to new freedoms defines each woman. Joanne longs for the comfort of wedlock, Kathy organizes to sublimate her angst, Mary chases counterculture liberation across Europe. Gafgen's earnest, touching performance leads a tremendous cast. In successive scenes, her bright smile dims a bit further, her once-hopeful yearning diminishes to the lyrics of the Rolling Stones' "Mother's Little Helper."

At each interval, each woman retains vestiges of a former self while showing how their different trajectories have frayed the bonds of childhood friendship.

Rich Rubin's sharp direction lets the laughs flow naturally. He approaches the characters' evolution like the slow turn of a photo album, lingering on potent images, accruing power over time.

Heifner hints at deeper themes: the role the pill played in women's liberation, the emergence of a class of women that will never marry or procreate, the point of a unique personality when we all pass through the same stages in life.

Unlike television's Mad Men, Vanities refuses to glamorize the suffering caused by an age reorienting a nation's moral compass. Innocence drowns in the shallows of a martini glass. And there's nothing trivial about that.


Vanities

Through April 21 at the Walnut Street Theatre's Studio 5, Ninth and Walnut Streets. Tickets: $25. www.quinceproductions.com or 215-627-1088.

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