Rep Stage in Columbia and MetroStage in Alexandria represent the northern and southern poles of the Washington theater world. Both are small professional troupes that have been around for a couple of decades, and though MetroStage does a brisk business in small-scale musicals (often jazz or blues biographies), both share a reputation for tasteful plays.
With Horton Foote’s gentle drama “A Young Lady of Property” at Rep and the exuberant, gospel-driven “Gee’s Bend” at Metro, the far-apart troupes currently have something else in common: shows steeped in nostalgic Americana.
“A Young Lady of Property” first appeared on NBC in 1953 with Kim Stanley and Joanne Woodward; at Rep Stage, Michael Stebbins’s direction is quiet and measured. The drama has a tidy plot: 15-year-old Wilma has lost her mother, but the family house is hers. Will her unreliable father (a terrifically shifty Tony Tsendeas), living with the woman he intends to marry, sell it out from under the poor girl?
The play is set in the familiar Foote territory of Harrison, Tex., in 1925, which means it was a nostalgia exercise 50 years ago, too. As Wilma, Christine Demuth acts with an energetic, rosy glow and a tumbleweed twang that turns “screen test” into “screen tist.” (Wilma wants to scurry off to Houston, where the local papers say a Hollywood director is looking for undiscovered starlets.)
It’s a little odd that Stebbins directs in such a presentational style. Greggory Schraven’s set — porch and swing on one side, austere dining room on the other — is all right angles, and the actors often walk the straight paths like rigid ghosts. They also stand side by side and talk directly to the audience. The calculated stiffness doesn’t always fit with Foote’s fine-grained, everyday writing.
Still, it’s a good story — an understated, old-school tale of a young girl coming to terms with her time and place. “Gee’s Bend,” on the other hand, overstates itself with the melodramatic saga of a black woman’s years in the tiny Alabama town from 1939 to 2002. Gilding the lily, MetroStage has hired two of its frequent musical directors, William Hubbard and William Knowles, to swell the show’s traditional gospel numbers from four to a dozen. It’s a showy move, but it pays off; “Gee’s Bend” is an undeniable crowd pleaser.
Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s story takes three distinct looks at a quilter named Sadie. In 1939, she’s 15 and marries a man named Macon, who seems to be hardworking and nice. By 1965, when Martin Luther King Jr. passes through and Sadie wants to see him, she learns that Macon’s a brute.
“Just ’cause you got a vote out there don’t mean you got one in here,” Macon rages.
The real Gee’s Bend is so famous for its quilts that they were exhibited in New York’s Whitney Museum and around the country within the past decade. That’s part of the subject as Wilder, who is white, shows us Sadie in 2002. But land becomes an issue, too, and a squabble with her daughter affirms Sadie as an old lady of property.
Thomas W. Jones II directs and choreographs with a taste for the red meat of Wilder’s script. No joke is too broad to be deeply savored, and the conflicts are fearsome.
But the hallmark of this production is the music: gospel and blues that underline emotions and crisply bridge the scenes. Percussionist Greg Holloway, working a variety of instruments, provides all the accompaniment that the confidently harmonizing cast needs. Roz White grows stronger by the scene as she plays Sadie across the ages, and Margo Moorer (as Sadie’s flippant sister), Anthony Manough (dynamic as Macon) and Duyen Washington (doubling first as Sadie’s mother, then as her daughter) all do vivid work. Whether joyful or downcast, the singing is beautiful and heartfelt.
The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission — the same as up north at Rep Stage.
by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder. Directed and choreographed by Thomas W. Jones II. Set design, Betsy Muller; costumes, Janine Sunday; lights, Jessica Lee Winfield. Through Nov. 3 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. Call 703-548-9044 or go to www.boxofficetickets.com.
by Horton Foote. Directed by Michael Stebbins. Costumes, Kristina Lambdin; lights, Terry Cobb; sound design, Ann Warren. With Marianne Angelella, Marilyn Bennett, Yvonne Erickson, Erica Lauren McLaughlin, Tony Tsendeas and Kathryn Zoerb. Through Sept. 29 at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia. Call 443-518-1500 or go to www.repstage.org.