By Lin Haire-Sargeant
“We are not as close to heaven as it used to seem — It’s just a dream.” — Cathy Whitaker in Far From Heaven
A dream. To many present-day Americans, life in this country during the ‘50s is an illusion — a utopia of harmony, prosperity, and gentle restraint. The Whitaker family epitomizes this fantasy in the musical Far From Heaven. Jennifer Ellis stars as uber wife and mother Cathy Whitaker, whose stunning looks, gorgeous wardrobe, and superb singing voice celebrate white upper-middle-class life in Hartford, Connecticut, circa autumn 1957. The Speakeasy Stage Company production, especially its visuals, nicely evoke the whimsical ‘perfection’ of this antiseptic vision. However, once Far From Heaven‘s plot jolts its characters into the nasty ’50s underground of racism, homophobia, and sexism, both the script and the production loses conviction. The pleasure of Cathy’s first-act dream overwhelms the anguish of her second-act awakening.
The play’s production values are pretty as a picture postcard. Set designer Eric Levenson plays up this notion by hanging a dozen movable postcard-shaped door-to mirror-sized frames, festooned with garlands of autumn leaves, between the performance area and the audience. As the orchestra strikes up its feel-good opener “Seasons,” backlights freeze the cast members in sassy silhouettes. People of the ’50s are not shaped like the cell-phoned, jeans-wearing folks we see on the street today. The ’50s women, skirts billowing and waists belted, are enigmatically coy. Betty Crocker or Grace Kelly? Men in suits, armed with briefcases, march toward Progress and Success.
The spots come up; the characters move, sing, and speak. Cathy, poised and elegant in her crisp yet lush red dress, confidently pitches “Autumn in Connecticut,” her big opening number. All the neighborhood ladies harmonize wearing bright leaf colors. (Costume designer Charles Schoonmaker serves up non-stop delights throughout the show.) The six-member orchestra, directed by Steven Bergman, plays offstage almost continuously, establishing leitmotifs that swell under spoken dialogue, much like the scores of the ’50s movies that inspired the 2002 Todd Haynes movie that inspired this musical. Cathy shepherds about her mischievous yet essentially obedient children (charmingly played by Audree Hedequist and Josh Sussman) as all the good wives praise the “heavenly” perfection of their suburban community. At the edges of the whirling choreography are characters in duller colors: the Whitaker’s housekeeper Sybil (Caroline Saxon) and gardener Raymond Deagan (Maurice Emmanuel Parent) and his young daughter Sarah (well-played by Sophia Mack). A elemental point is subtly made: Cathy would have no leisure to sing and dance without the labors of her African-American employees.
But they are socially invisible: “There are no Negroes in Hartford.” That ‘fact’ is established during Cathy’s interview with society newspaper interviewer and all-around gossip Mrs. Leacock (Kerry A. Dowling), who gushes Margaret Dumont–style about Cathy’s fine home and social prominence. Still, Leacock is put on alert after she sees Cathy mistake Raymond for a “loiterer” and then apologize to him profusely for her mistake. Leacock’s column snidely praises Cathy for being “kind to Negroes.” The housewife is still firmly in heaven, but the neighborhood has been warned.
Two prime comedic songs follow, giving the SpeakEasy Stage company members a chance to show off their considerable song and dance talents. In “Office Talk” the sexy, sexist office culture of the ’50s is smartly satirized: Frank Whitaker (Jared Troilo) and his work buddy Stan Fine (Terrence O’Malley) ogle a pert-flirt secretary Connie (Rachel Gianna Tassio). After this amusing interlude comes the crowd-pleasing “Marital Bliss,” in which Cathy’s girlfriends confide sex secrets and tease Cathy to tell all “about that dreamboat of a husband.”
But there’s little to tell, and on that crucial absence hangs the tale. Frank drinks too much and works too much to keep himself from feeling too much—for other men. When Cathy opens a door and finds him with a male lover, she goes into shock, but then quickly forgives him. Both take the then “enlightened” view that homosexuality was a mental illness. Frank promises to change and sees a therapist, who recommends electric shock treatment or aversion therapy. Drunk at a New Year’s party and resentful of being forced to play a heterosexual role, Frank loutishly disses Cathy to everyone: “She looks different without the inch of makeup she’s wearing,” and “You should see Miss America here without her girdle!” Repression may be working for everyone else in the ’50s, but it isn’t doing much for Frank.
Jared Troilo and Jennifer Ellis in a scene from the SpeakEasy Stage production of “Far From Heaven.” Photo: Craig Bailey/ Perspective Photo.
Cathy immerses herself in cultural activities. She is surprised to meet Raymond, the African-American employee to whom she has been so notoriously kind, at a high-profile art show opening. Cathy asks him, “How on earth did you hear about this?” He retorts that he does read the newspapers; she tongue-trips “Oh, I’m not prejudiced! I support the N-A-C-P.” Raymond coolly displays his superior knowledge of art history in the duet “Miro” and a spark between the pair kindles. Gossip predictably flares. It’s clear that Raymond, Cathy, and Frank are headed for emotional and social disaster.
There is another play in town about a relationship between an attractive, articulate black man and a privileged white woman, and it has made very different production choices. Set just a decade after Far From Heaven, the current Huntington Theatre Company production of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is less about re-experiencing the pain of an old, doomed problem and more about using shared cultural wisdom to solve it. At the Huntington, the rich white Draytons rely on the services of black maid Matilda Binks (wonderfully portrayed by Lynda Grávet) whose traditionally African-American stories and songs provide the moral axis around which the play’s characters, black and white, finally revolve—in harmony. Conversely, Far From Heaven’s Raymond and his young daughter Sarah are isolated from any significant social context. The speeches the book writers put in Raymond’s mouth at times sound stilted, artificial, and ungrounded. Though Sybil is Raymond’s friend-she tells Cathy the terrible news that Sarah has been attacked and injured by some of David Whitaker’s schoolmates-the play misses the chance to use the implied African-American web of friendship to deepen the drama. Sybil remains on the margins and the musical is much weaker for it.
Only Raymond’s jazz-influenced leitmotif draws from African-American culture. The cold café to which Raymond takes Cathy, to show her what it feels like to be “The Only One,” as their duet enunciates, gets the message across, but it comes off as didactic and thin — where is the brilliant music that African-American musicians (jazz, soul, R & B, and rock) were creating in the ’50s? Instead of exploring those energetic traditions, deepening the emotional and musical range of the drama, Far From Heaven moves off to Cuba (where Frank and Cathy try to patch things up). The result is “Wandering Eyes,” an enjoyable, but unnecessary, Latinizing production number. Frank’s troubles begin to resolve themselves, but Cathy’s and Raymond’s challenges become even more formidable. The action of the second act becomes sketchy, its study of wounded individuals increasingly undernourished.
Far From Heaven successfully exposes certain evils of the moneyed white class in mid-20th century America. But the aspects of the production that succeed most – the vivid costumes, the lively song-and-dance-numbers, the social comedy – end up undercutting the painful exploration of difference that is supposed to be at the musical’s center. The show-biz glitz and glamour marginalizes the relevance of the play’s moral message. The white suburban eden was a lovely dream — but haven’t we woken up?