Everyman Theatre introduces region to 'By the Way, Meet Vera Stark'

During a rather frantic Hollywood party one night in 1933, a film director pontificates on the heavily-laden-with-historic-woe type of actors he wants to portray the slaves in his new antebellum epic.

A black maid named Vera Stark, eager to get into the movies and determined to catch the director's eye, transforms herself — in less than an instant, it seems — from confident to meek, articulate to mumbling, upright to stooped-over. It's hilarious and pathetic all at once.

Portrayed by the compelling Dawn Ursula in Everyman Theatre's production of the 2011 Lynn Nottage play "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark," this stardom-seeking servant understands the game almost too well. She knows exactly what options are open to her, exactly what's expected of her and all other actors of color.

But Vera embodies the attitude of the legendary Hattie McDaniel, who famously justified her typecast career by saying she'd rather play a maid than be one. First, though, Vera has to find a way out of actually being a maid to Gloria Mitchell (the delectable Beth Hylton), a star once tagged "America's little sweetheart" and now in need of a good role.

The connection between Gloria and Vera goes way beyond employer and employee. And that relationship has a pivotal part in the intriguing story that Nottage has concocted, a fictional examination of race, women and Hollywood.

"By the Way, Meet Vera Stark" combines comedy and commentary in a bold, mostly successful fashion, encompassing seven decades of American entertainment and social history. In its Baltimore/Washington premiere, the play could not ask for a much more vibrant or rewarding introduction than the one offered by Everyman.

The company has pulled out all the stops. Casting and direction are first-rate, and so is the stagecraft.

Scenic designer Daniel Ettinger conjures up a giddy visual feast for Act 1 — a sparkling home for the vain, gin-infused Gloria; the modest, perfectly detailed apartment Vera shares with two friends who also dream of making it in Hollywood.

The second act's treats include the spot-on conjuring up of a 1970s TV studio setting that will have folks of a certain age reminiscing about the old "Mike Douglas Show." This portion of the play combines two time periods, with film scholars at a 2003 conference discussing the legacy of Vera Stark while watching old movie and TV clips.

Those TV souvenirs are acted out live onstage. The movie clip is really on film, depicting a scene from "The Belle of New Orleans," the big-break movie for Vera that lets her reveal the soul behind the slave.

This film component has been so expertly crafted for Everyman by cinematographer Thomas Kaufman, and so deftly acted by Ursula and Hylton, that it's a shame that Nottage didn't provide enough material for it to last more than a few minutes. But that's all she wrote.

As much as it enlivens and anchors the play, this deathbed movie scene — a mixed-race-passing-for-white woman attended by her beloved servant Tilly — isn't quite fulfilling.

The dialogue flits uneasily between satire and sincerity. And the last line is so banal that it's hard to go along with the idea that Vera, as Tilly, utters it on camera with such resonance that it will rival Scarlett O'Hara's final "Gone with the Wind" words in terms of public consciousness. (Perhaps there is satire in this as well.)

That said, the "Belle of New Orleans" business in the play works well enough. And when, interviewed on that TV chat show, Vera says she is still "bound to Tilly" 40 years later, it is easy to feel the sting, especially given Ursula's brilliant portrayal.

The actress, one of Everyman's resident artists, has the beauty and nuance to make a riveting Vera, and she lets you sense every ounce of frustration inside. (Nottage based the character on Theresa Harris, whose film career was largely confined to maid roles despite her physical glamour).

Ursula also handles the funny stuff in Act 1 with aplomb, verbally and physically. She has a perfect foil in Hylton, who has a great time bringing out the comic side of Gloria, forever thrusting one arm above her head with an uber-diva flourish, pouting and curling up like a spoiled child when not getting her way.

Hylton is convincing, too, as the older, not wiser, Gloria, who surprises Vera on that TV show. The two women, we learn, have also been bound together, and much longer than 40 years.

Act 2 doesn't measure up to the first. The dissecting of Vera's career bogs down a bit and doesn't necessarily get all that insightful, but it does bring into focus issues that have never really disappeared in Hollywood. And there's some biting wit here, too, for Nottage never turns too serious for too long.

Director Walter Dallas keeps the play rolling along at a good clip and finds terrific ways to point up the humor, and the pathos, as he goes. He draws a genuine ensemble effort from the actors, who display uniformly impeccable timing and who are never short on subtle, telling touches.

Kelli Blackwell steals every scene she is in, but you would never want to press charges. She's a hoot as Vera's friend Lottie, who wants to land a part in "Belle of New Orleans," too, when she realizes it means "slaves with lines."

I may never think of "Go Down, Moses" the same way again after hearing Blackwell's rendition. And the sight of her carrying a tray in slow-motion is alone worth the price of admission. The actress also shines as one of the scholars in Act 2.

Wil Love likewise brings abundant style to dual roles, especially that of the silly TV show host. Kathryn Tkel, Yaegel T. Welch and Robert Lyons round out the production with great flair.

The many sight gags along the way include delectable screen credits and "Gone with the Wind"-like stills from "Belle of New Orleans." Except for an oddly minimalist soundtrack to the film clip (I was hoping for something more Max Steiner-ish ), music is used effectively throughout. David Burdick's costumes add the fabulous finishing touch.

All in all, "Vera Stark" is well worth meeting.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad