Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2004.
It is always a treat to see actress Annette Miller on the stage. And I don’t wonder at her choice of vehicles this time around – I can see the allure of playing the charming and eccentric Diana Vreeland, mid-20th century fashionista to the world. This play is a collaboration between actress Mary Louise Wilson and playwright Mark Hampton and was obviously created for Wilson, who won an Obie and a Drama Desk award for her performance in New York. Miller spent time studying videotape of Vreeland, who died in 1989, and has assumed her dramatic look and quirky mannerisms, as fully as she was able to embody Golda Meir in her award winning performance in Golda’s Balcony.
Diana Vreeland (1906-1989) was the fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar from 1939-1963, and then moved to Vogue where she served as editor-in-chief from the mid-1960’s until 1971 when she was abruptly let go. The play is set in August of 1971, immediately after Vreeland has returned to New York City from the four-month trip to Europe that she took after her dismissal. The action takes place during the course of one evening as she struggles to organize a small dinner party (which may or may not include dinner) for some old friends and a financier she hopes will fund her next project. Vreeland is broke and at loose ends, although her spirit remains unbreakable. She tells her friend Va-Va Adlerberg over the phone, “I’m back up on my horse…Full gallop!” In point of fact she is not back up on the horse because she has yet to select her mount from the stable, but by the evening’s end we see her make that selection and saddle up for her next adventure as consultant to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum, an endeavor at which she was also wildly successful.
“I was always fascinated by the absurdities and the luxuries and the snobbism that the world of the fashion magazines showed,” Vreeland once said, “But I lived in that world… because I was always of that world at least in my imagination.”
Vreeland was definitely an eccentric, and she was that very specific sort of upper class woman who smells of vodka, cigarettes, and expensive perfume – I could swear the scent was in the theatre, so vivid are my own memories of times spent with women of that ilk. Vreeland possessed no grace or beauty, making her an ironic icon for the fashion world. She was pencil thin and wore her face very white and her cheeks, lips, and nails very red. Her black hair, and it stayed black one way or another throughout her life, was lacquered up and back In this day and age where all dress is casual and no one tells anyone what to wear, it is hard to imagine the tremendous sway Vreeland held over the fashion world in the mid-20th century. She worked with Jacqueline Kennedy on her signature look as First Lady that influenced women’s fashions world wide.
I have not read Vreeland’s memoir D.V. but I assume that Wilson and Hampton have relied heavily on things she actually wrote or said, or is reported as having said, for much of the dialogue. There are some wonderful lines in the play which I suspect are pure Vreeland.
One-person plays are always problematic because there really is no reason for a famous person, say, Diana Vreeland, to stand around her living room relating her entire life story to an audience full of strangers. And if she is not addressing the audience, which Miller most definitely is, then she is just rambling on, talking to the furniture, which real people don’t do in real life. I cannot decide whether the setting at Spring Lawn, where the audience sits on either side of the playing area and therefore each half clearly sees the other as a living backdrop if not a major player, is a plus or a minus for this show. It does make it more obviously theatrical, but it also makes all of us shabbily dressed plebeians a part of Vreeland’s world, which we certainly are not.
Costume designer Govane Lohbauer has draped Miller entirely in the chicest black turtleneck and narrow ankle length slacks. She looks simultaneously of the period and very modern – an effect of which I am sure Vreeland would have approved. There are some minor red accents and the set, by Brynna Bloomfield, is done mostly in rusty reds and olives. I understand Vreeland’s actual Park Avenue apartment, which she said she wanted to look like “a garden in hell” was completely decorated in lacquer reds with scarlet colored floral wall coverings. Since agree with Vreeland’s assessment that “Red is the great clarifier…it makes all other colors beautiful” I would not have been averse to seeing a more dramatic set with more red in it.
In order to give Vreeland some chance to interact with others, there are scenes where she speaks on the phone to people who we don’t hear, or on the intercom to her maid Yvonne, who we do hear. I have to fault sound designer Dewey Dellay for the annoying fact that Yvonne’s voice didn’t come out of the intercom unit or from anywhere near it. But Dellay did do a nice job coordinating the delightful period music Vreeland plays on her phonograph throughout the course of the evening.
Full Gallop runs through September 5 at the Spring Lawn Theatre at Shakespeare & Company on Kemble Street in Lenox. The show runs just a shade under two hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family, although small children will be bored. Call the box office at 413-637-3353 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004