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Rep Stage opens season with charming Horton Foote play

Most works by the ancient Greek playwright Menander did not survive the passage of time, but fragments survive. One of them, translated by Francis G. Allinson in 1921, contains a line making this insightful little point: "Property covereth a multitude of woes."

That sentiment underlies much of Horton Foote's slender drama from the mid-1950s, "A Young Lady of Property," which Rep Stage has given a mostly effective revival to open the 2013-14 season.

Fifteen-year-old Wilma Thompson believes that she owns the house where she grew up, the house where her mother died much too young. After all, her mother promised it to her. Everyone in the small town of Harrison, Texas, knows that.

Sure, Wilma's father rents out the place, but that's just temporary, as is the fact that Wilma is living with her aunt. The family house will be Wilma's whenever she is ready.

But, it being 1925 and the whole country being caught up in the magic of the movies, Wilma figures she has time to have a career in Hollywood first.

The juxtaposition of that girlish daydream, fueled by news that a hotshot director is giving screen tests in Houston (you would have to be a teenager to see the likelihood of that), gives this play about growing up a sweet and amusing layer.

Christine Demuth makes the most of that lighter side of the plot in her fervent performance as the accordion-toting Wilma. But she also has the expressive subtlety -- her eyes always speak -- to draw out the depth of the girl's anxieties when Wilma learns that property can come attached with that multitude of woes.

Kathryn Zoerb is a charmer as Wilma's best friend Arabella, willing to share in any adventure, but more inclined to nestle into the comforting insulation Harrison offers. Other than keeping their arms rigidly at their sides too much of the time, both Demuth and Zoerb convey the spirit of youth very persuasively.

As Wilma's Aunt Gert, Yvonne Erickson offers a good mix of tenderness and steel, not to mention a particularly refined Southern accent. The role of Minna, the sensitive maid in Gert's house, is ably filled by Erica Lauren McLaughlin. (Some stiffness from both actresses on opening night should dissipate as the run continues.)

Tony Tsendeas nearly walks off with the show portraying the only male characters in the play. He manages to give each one distinctive traits, especially the postman who loves his own jokes, and Wilma's father, who is so sure he is doing the right thing.

Marilyn Bennett has a good romp as the nosy Miss Martha. Marianne Angelella rounds out the cast as Wilma's potential stepmother.

Everyone in the production would benefit from a touch of propulsion. Director Michael Stebbins keeps the pace broad, perhaps overly concerned with conveying the slow tempo of small-town Texas. The performers often allow too much space between lines, as if silently counting to five before proceeding.

The result can seem awfully studied, starting with the opening of the play. When the lights come up onstage, Demuth, Zoerb and Erickson slowly walk out, slowly take their places, slowly start to sing (very nicely) a gem of Americana, "Ben Bolt." It all takes much too long. Surely the effect would be far more striking if all were in place and the music could start right on cue with the lights.

Such reservations aside, the staging, with its deft minimal set by Greggory Schraven and spot-on costumes by Kristina Lambdin, provides a welcome opportunity to experience one of Foote's lesser, but subtly telling, works. 

"A Young Lady of Property" runs through Sept. 29.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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