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Theater Review: By the Way, Meet Vera Stark

Photo 1By the Way, Meet Vera Stark
Written by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Chuck Smith
Wednesdays, Thursdays at 7:30pm
Fridays, Saturdays at 8pm
Saturdays, Sundays at 2pm
Thru June 2nd

Buy Tickets at www.goodmantheatre.org or Goodman Theatre @ 170 N. Dearborn in Chicago

Tweetable Review: Goodman’s Vera Stark is unevenly presented but gives audiences exaggerated laughs

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark features a Jazzy opening with a boldly large Black & White living room of a Depression-era actress. Center stage Miss Gloria Mitchell (aka America’s Little Cutie-Pie) rehearses lines for her upcoming screen test opposite Vera Stark, an African American maid who waits on the young actress, secretly burning to break out of her servant lifestyle and grace the silver screen with her talent. Audiences are treated to stylized screen acting from a film currently being vied for. With a show whose premise sounds promising and filled with plenty of character, historical significance (even if centered around a fictitious character) and drama – Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning script at the Goodman Theater instead gives audiences bold setting but lackluster credibility and message.

To put the full story in context, By the Way tells of the story of Vera Stark, a headstrong African American actress who begins her career in the 1930s, at a time when her only shot at success lies in stealing small scenes in big Hollywood blockbusters. Seventy years later, film buffs are left to reflect on the life and legacy of this controversial star, whose eventual fame and fortune came at the price of perpetuating dangerous stereotypes. By the Way, Meet Vera Stark paints a picture of the cultural climate that shaped this mysterious screen queen—and wonders who, in another time, she might have been.

What better way to explore Hollywood and its’ back room dealings than through a story which unveils racism, sexism, mold-breaking and may contain a headstrong Black female who can overcome each of her obstacles – or at least die trying.  Nottage however has given a unevenly balanced spotlight on the relationship of Starks’ main characters through an expense of satirical exaggeration, which simply doesn’t pay off by the end of the first or second act, let alone the entire piece as a whole. Additionally, what is more deeply concerning about Vera Stark is that audiences aren’t able to fully invest in the stories of it’s two central characters’ plight as we never get a sense of danger, personal failure or desperation that is taking place; Nottage has veered from anything heavy or upfront by writing light touches & aspects of larger themes – fame, segregation & equal rights, etc., which ultimately isn’t enough for a character to just want something but we need to see the struggle to get there, or at least have great enough dialogue to give us a taste of the struggle.

Overall, Chuck Smith’s production as a whole could offer wonderful & in-depth conversation about the all-too-often discussed -isms (race, sex, etc.) but ends up short due to superficiality.  Acting is handled effectively by many of the double-cast members but (as a comparison) results in a show whose principle Actors give off roles void of motivations, conflict and spark between themselves and each other, ultimately creating lead characters in an ordinary tale, about an ordinary topic, on the acting profession and like so many that have come before her, Vera Stark isn’t meaningful, she’s just traditional.

~ Matt Miles, 24/7 Contributor
Producer of Fresh Roasted Films 

– Please note this is a partial review, please click HERE to read full review at Fresh Roasted Films

Notable Performances:
Patrick Clear and Ron Rains as the joint Brad Donovan Show co-hosts play incredibly well off each other and bring strong, fully realized performances to life with wonderful nuances. Taron Patton turns in a solidly over-the-top turn in her Lottie McBride role. Characterizing a newly-turned and cynical “Mammie” character never was so humorous.

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