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

FRONT AND CENTER: Susan Heyward takes her turn as the lead actress in "Sabrina Fair," which opened at Ford's Theatre on Friday.
FRONT AND CENTER: Susan Heyward takes her turn as the lead actress in "Sabrina Fair," which opened at Ford's Theatre on Friday. (Evy Mages for The Washington Post)
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."

Wren is a freelance writer.

Sabrina Fair

is at Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. NW, through Oct. 24. Tickets are $20-$55. 202-347-4833.

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