Editors' pick

Sabrina Fair

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Editorial Review

Theater: 'Sabrina Fair' at Ford's Theatre is reviewed by Nelson Pressley

By Nelson Pressley
Saturday, October 9, 2010

The thing about Sabrina Fairchild -- well, yes, she's runway lovely, and a real fashion plate after five years in Paris. And apparently she's not shy the way she was as a kid raised on the Long Island estate of the wealthy Larrabee family.

But the thing is, although Sabrina immediately catches the eyes of both Larrabee brothers (David, the playboy, and Linus, the biz whiz) when she comes home all grown up, romance would be a scandal because . . . well . . . she's the chauffeur's daughter.

Actually, the fact that dare not speak its name in the Ford's Theatre revival of Samuel A. Taylor's 1953 "Sabrina Fair" (which became the iconic Audrey Hepburn film "Sabrina") is that for this production, Sabrina is now black, the Larrabees are still white, and it's still 1953. The characters can't mention race because it's not what Taylor wrote, though he recommended it for revivals before he died in 2000.

Nontraditional casting has arguably been the most successful project of the American theater over the past generation, yet this "Sabrina Fair" raises issues that the performance does not fully resolve. For starters, the claim that class is passe in America (the rationale for inserting race as the new source of friction) is simply wishful thinking. Then there's the business of 1950s racial history, viewed terribly gingerly through this fairy-tale lens. And we always have the problem of repertory: Surely there are black playwrights groaning at the lost opportunity for their own stories as another white company takes a safe title and dabbles in the kind of race-conscious retrofitting that was progressive 25 years ago.

But while there are genuine grounds for resistance even before the curtain goes up, guess what? The show itself is charming, and surprisingly funny. It's gorgeously designed; the Larrabees' stone mansion (the set is by Daniel Lee Conway) looks like it was rolled in from Embassy Row, and Wade Laboissonniere's elegant costumes capture 1950s swank with crisp lines and vibrant flair.

What's really arresting, though, is the acting. The cast utterly buys in -- no irony, no condescension and blessedly adult, which makes for an unexpectedly laid-back, shimmering performance. Helen Hedman and Kimberly Schraf radiate savoir faire as, respectively, Maude Larrabee (mother of Linus and David) and Maude's longtime friend Julia, a fashionable magazine editor who gets a lot of the play's wise lines. As Linus, Todd Gearhart even channels the gruff cadences of William Holden (David in the Hepburn film).

Gearhart, dusky-voiced and handsome, almost overdoes the tough-guy bit, but his serious edge situates this romantic comedy right at the border of melodrama (the pleasant kind, not the drippy brand). Linus is efficient to a fault; "He hasn't made a wrong move since he was three," David observes in the kind of dry barb that's characteristic of Taylor's leisurely, appealing script. But Linus is also philosophical, and so is Sabrina; it is clearly their feelings about the basics of living that made Ford's want to explore an extra angle.

"I shall keep my place as soon as I know it," Sabrina brightly informs her worried father, and there, of course, is a heroine to love. As that place becomes increasingly hard to define, though, Sabrina later wonders, "If I'm a girl without a home, am I also a girl without a country?" So the gambit has payoffs in the text after all.

Susan Heyward, as Sabrina, not only sparkles in the role, but pertly reasons her way through the character's dilemmas. In her own way, Heyward does what Hepburn did: face complexity with a light style. Heyward's Sabrina may be fun-loving and brimming with Continental confidence, but she's also alert to every nuance as commentary flies around her; you feel Sabrina's double awareness of being an outsider even as she nearly has both Cinderella feet in.

All that may make Heyward first among equals in a cast that's uncommonly blessed with intelligence and grace. John Dow is just the right amount of addled as the Larrabee patriarch, Donna Migliaccio is discreetly amusing as the sharp-eared housekeeper, and as Sabrina's father, Craig Wallace holds the show in his capable hands for a lovely spell near the end. Everyone knows where the laughs and the portentous moments are, and throughout, the tone -- which really has no margin for error -- is spot on.

By Samuel A. Taylor. Directed by Stephen Rayne. Lighting, Pat Collins; sound design, John Gromada. With Michael Morrow Hammack, Bolton Marsh, Casie Platt, Julia Proctor, Tonya Beckman Ross and Derek Kahn Thompson. About 2 hours 15 minutes.

Ford Theatre's 'Sabrina Fair' puts race, not class, center stage

By Celia Wren
Sunday, October 3, 2010

If you know anything about the play "Sabrina Fair," it's probably just that it inspired the iconic 1954 Billy Wilder comedy "Sabrina," starring Audrey Hepburn. If you know more, forget it.

Because what Ford's Theatre brings to the stage this month in a revival of the Samuel A. Taylor romantic comedy "is going to be a revelation," Paul Tetreault, director of the Ford's Theatre Society, says.

For one thing, the 1953 original is a story about class: Sabrina, a Long Island chauffeur's daughter, acquires glamour and worldliness during a stay in Paris, and then, back at home, entrances the sons of her father's employer.

But circa 2010, Taylor's original notion that love can transcend class barriers seems quaint and lacks the dramatic power it had in the post-World War II era. So in Ford's production, directed by Stephen Rayne, Susan Heyward in the title role and Craig Wallace as her father, the longtime chauffeur to the ultra-rich Larrabee family, are black. The drama's other characters, including Sabrina's two Larrabee suitors -- the devil-may-care charmer David (Tom Story) and the controlling business-whiz Linus (Todd Gearhart) -- are played by whites.

The casting strategy realigns the thematic tensions and -- without changing the 1950s setting -- gives the story contemporary resonance.

It was Tetreault who came up with the idea. Urged to read "Sabrina Fair" by Mark Ramont, Ford's director of theater programming, Tetreault did so twice on a long plane trip. "I thought, 'Oh my God, you could completely do this,' " he recalled in a phone interview. "You would not change a single world of dialogue" but would still supply the "gravitas that this 60-year-old play needed."

As he later learned, he hadn't been the first to think so. When Sydney Pollack was working on a remake of "Sabrina" that would star Julia Ormond and Harrison Ford, the director talked to dramatist Taylor. The writer's son, David Taylor, remembers, "My father said -- I think quite rightly -- that to do the exact same movie that had been made in the 1950s was wrong, because the story didn't make sense anymore." Given the more fluid class structure of the late 20th century, the playwright's recommendation was: "At least cast a black actress!"

"They ignored that," David Taylor added. Samuel Taylor died in 2000, at age 87.

Interviewed the day before a trip to Japan -- he was off to see a Japanese "Sabrina" staging with an all-female cast -- David Taylor called Ford's "Sabrina Fair" revival the largest and "certainly the most exciting" mounting of the play in a long while.

The relatively rarity of stagings of "Sabrina Fair" in the United States has less to do with the play itself than with economics, Rayne says from the theater, where the play is in rehearsal. "It's delightful, and it's dense, and it's complex, and it's rich, and it's really well crafted," the director observed, comparing the script to works by Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward. He blames "Sabrina Fair's" relative obscurity on its large cast size: There are 14 roles, an expensive commitment for theaters in tough economic times.

As for this production's emphasis on race, he thinks it will deepen the story without undermining the wit. "It makes certain areas of the play darker, because you're asking real questions about prejudice," he said. But painful truths can be a source of humor, too. "The best comedy comes out of appalling situations."

His lead actress, who is making her D.C. theater debut, agrees that "Sabrina Fair" can be profound. A veteran of NBC's "30 Rock" and the New York staging of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Ruined," Heyward said that "Sabrina Fair" is far tougher and more insightful than the movies it spawned. "The play really brings up some hard questions -- eternal questions, I think -- about how we are going to decide to live in the world. Are we going to live in the world with power and with dominance" -- like Linus Larrabee -- "or are we going to live lives of love," like the free-spirited Sabrina?

The movie industry may have predisposed the public to think of Sabrina as little more than an adorable fashion plate -- a gamine Hepburn in Givenchy. But Taylor's heroine is more of a visionary rebel, Heyward thinks. "She doesn't burn anything, but just the fact that she's willing to love indiscriminately is an act of revolution."