CCX_1904.jpg: Henrietta Hermelin and Leah Smith in “The War Since Eve.” Photo: Jude Walton
Some time ago I attended a staged reading of a new play by local author Kim Carney. I’ve been a fan of Carney’s work for quite some time – she’s the author of such favorites as “The Home Team” and “Moonglow,” for example – and so out of curiosity I trekked to Ann Arbor one night to check out her latest project. “The War Since Eve” was under consideration for an upcoming production at Performance Network Theatre, teased Artistic Director David Wolber, and after an impressive read-through, it came as no surprise that months later the Network announced its world premiere during the company’s 2010-11 season.
It was then that I decided to review the show. It would be fun, I thought, to see how the show has evolved since its initial reading – and what Carney changed to make the work stronger. (She received plenty of comments after the initial reading – some insightful, some not.) But what cemented my decision was director Wolber’s choice to bring back actors Henrietta Hermelin and Leah Smith and added Sarab Kamoo to complete the cast. With a dream team such as this, how could the show miss?
On opening night I discovered the answer: Carney and Performance Network have another hit on their hands!
“The War Since Eve” is the story of Roxie Firestone (Hermelin), a beloved 70-something feminist icon whose life and life choices come back to haunt her after she arrives in Washington D.C. to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Accompanied by her eldest daughter, the over-worked and under-appreciated Milty (Smith), the feisty, outspoken and very opinionated Firestone plans to blaze yet another new trail: She’s writing a memorable speech for the presentation – despite the fact honorees are to be seen and not heard from. “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” Roxie says with condescension toward the award’s protocol. And feminism’s leading voice has been anything BUT well behaved throughout the decades – at least according to rules promulgated by polite society. “Let’s just say…it’s gonna be memorable.”
Of course, the night becomes just that – but for a totally different reason.
A knock at the door reveals Roxie’s youngest daughter, Tara (Kamoo), who’s been estranged from the family for 20 years. “Let the dead rest,” Roxie said of Tara in an earlier conversation. But when face to face with her long-lost daughter, Tara is warmly welcomed back into the fold – much to Milty’s shock and chagrin. But hold on tight to your copy of the “Feminist Manifesto,” because by the time the night ends, long-held secrets will come tumbling out faster than you can say “Gloria Steinem” – and the family may never be the same again.
Nor will audiences, after watching Carney’s delightful story unfold before their very eyes. Plays featuring an entire cast of strong female characters are rare – as are juicy roles for the more seasoned actress. Yet that’s precisely what Carney delivers with “The War Since Eve.”
Although the play’s title relates to feminism’s fight for equality (and comes from the speech Roxie made upon receiving her medal from President Obama), it actually refers to a different battle that has raged since the beginning of time: the push-and-shove and the love-and-hate between mothers and their daughters.
To tell her story, each of Carney’s characters is well defined. One daughter sacrificed her own life and happiness to devote herself entirely to her mother’s career, while the other rebelled and married the man her mother despised. And one award Roxie will NEVER receive is that of Mother of the Year. Yet despite the problems between them, Carney never loses sight of the familial bonds that unite them.
That’s also true of the actresses – each of whom has sparkling dialogue and varied emotional beats to help define their characters.
Kamoo’s Tara and Smith’s Milty are thoroughly believable as sisters – despite the fact they look absolutely nothing alike. (There’s a reason for that.) Smith is especially adept at saying nothing, but conveying much through her wordless (and priceless) reactions to her mother’s many contradictory statements. (It’s a flawless performance.)
But the show hinges upon the believability and the likability of Hermelin’s Roxie. In lesser hands, Roxie could easily become a shrill and obnoxious bitch. Hermelin, however – one of the local industry’s jewels – creates a complicated, passionate, yet very self-centered woman who’s fascinating to watch every moment she’s on stage. Plus, Carney has served Hermelin the most tastiest one-liners, and the actress hits every one of them out of the ballpark.
One minor problem on opening night, though, did not detract from the overall experience: The laughs were often so long and loud – and possibly unexpected – that the actors failed to pause long enough for the audience to hear the rest of the dialogue!
Wolber’s direction is perfectly paced, and all of the show’s technical elements are equally fine. (Sarah Tanner’s set is especially well executed.)
So how much has the show changed, you may be wondering? Not significantly, from what I can tell; except it’s gotten better – with sharper one-liners and cleaner dialogue. But two minor problems still bug me: In today’s world of media snoops and “gotcha” journalism, there’s no way the true story behind Roxie’s early life would have remained secret. And the revelation regarding Tara’s husband seems to give credence to a negative male stereotype espoused by certain feminists.
‘The War Since Eve’
Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. Thursday-Sunday through Feb. 13. $25-$41. 734-663-0681. http://www.performancenetwork.org