Kevin Lane Dearinger took his unparalleled Lexington theater scholarship to the stage Thursday night with In Respect to Mrs. Carter; the American Bernhardt, which also served as an introduction to a new Lexington theater company.
New Works, Inc. launched last spring with a series of readings of new plays at the Downtown Arts Center, including Walter May’s Gone Astray, which Actor’s Guild of Lexington will open in a full production next week.
Thursday’s one-night-only performance of Mrs. Carter was one script away from a full production, namely the script actress Julieanne Pogue had on stage for what was billed as a “premiere reading” of the play. It was a script we frankly kept forgetting was there thanks to Pogue’s engaging performance and a stylized book that looked like a letter or journal the turn-of-the-20th century actress might have naturally been carrying around her bedroom.
Carter’s is a story that starts in Lexington, though it is likely not one many Lexingtonians know. It is logical territory for Dearinger, whose books include The Bard in the Bluegrass: Two Centuries of Shakespeare Performance in Lexington, Kentucky.
Carter was born Caroline Louise Dudley to a Lexington merchant family that eventually moved to Dayton, Ohio — a state whose name was said in a distinctly dismissive way, in Pogue’s performance.
She always had dreams of being an actress but married a cruel Chicago businessman, Leslie Carter. She was fascinated by his money and residence, but did not realize how awful it all could be.
After a messy divorce that dragged her reputation through the mud, she embarked on that acting career, using her married name to spite her ex husband, who was mortified at the thought of her acting.
And for a time, it was a glorious career as she enjoyed success across the United States and Europe. But it came in the shadow of personal despair, Carter separated from her son for decades, as her ex-husband’s family retained custody of him. And then, just as things were going well, she made some decisions that proved disastrous for her career and personal life.
In the New Works production, there was always this razor blade on a pedestal at the corner of the stage, which Carter occasionally flirted with, making us wonder what this story would come to.
Though Carter’s is a largely unknown story, it was very engaging in Dearinger’s telling. At a few junctures, Mrs. Carter briefly bogged down in philosophical soliloquies. But for the most part, the play zipped along, packing a lot into a 90-minute runtime.
Pogue was particularly adept at giving a little punch to Dearinger’s witty monologue, such as characterizing her husband’s sister and aunt as “bovine virgins” and that gloriously condescending way she said “Ohio.”
Lexington is blessed with a number of tremendous actresses who could have stepped into this role, including a couple that will be in On the Verge’s Love, Loss and What I Wore, which opens encore performances next week.
But Pogue possesses the flare for the dramatic and melodramatic that suit Dearinger’s script perfectly. And she has an ideal guide in director Bo List, who accented the big moments and also guided us through some genuine pain, including Carter’s horrible wedding night and few late moments that brought the room to profound silence.
Speaking of encore performances …
Maybe the most striking this about the night was this did not feel like a theater company’s debut production. While New Works is a new theater, artistic director Stephen Currens, a veteran actor and Broadway writer, knows how to present a show. And with a couple other New Works productions slated for the coming months, Lexington has something to look forward to.