In his lifetime, F. Scott Fitzgerald never quite gained the critical or popular acclaim he always thought was due him—in fact, many considered him to be not much more than a hack, certainly more of a celebrity than a literary lion. Vilified as a dilettante, a wastrel, a poseur, it took his untimely death (and the fortuitous World War II distribution of the book that many consider his masterpiece) to earn his place in the pantheon of great American writers.
But, for all his failings and apparent shortcomings (Ernest Hemingway’s assertions notwithstanding, heterosexual men are relatively uninformed about the relative size of another man’s penis), the man who coined the terms “Jazz Age” and “flapper”—and who, with his capricious, beautiful and mad wife Zelda, personified the era that he most often wrote about in his thinly veiled fictional accounts of their life together—is one of the most fascinating figures in American literature. And now, thanks to the exquisitely crafted and wonderfully creative Outside Paradise, a new play written by Bill Feehely and given an opulent world premiere production from Actors Bridge Ensemble, the story of these two tragic figures is brought to life onstage.
Played with self-assured confidence and thorough commitment by Clay Steakley and Jennifer Richmond, Scott and Zelda are the leading characters in a cleverly plotted, richly drawn play that arrives on the Black Box Stage at Belmont University via a focused production that is imaginatively staged, perfectly capturing the charismatic pair amid the trappings of the riotously roaring ‘20s that they exemplified. The superb performances of Steakley and Richmond are made all the more impressive by the work of director/playwright Feehely’s ensemble of young actors who surround them, playing the characters—both real and fictional—who surrounded the gilded Fitzgeralds throughout their travels and amid all their travails.
Feehely’s play opens in 1940, just before Fitzgerald suffers the heart attack that would ultimately take his life. Looked after by his lover Sheilah Graham (Ashley Glore, who looks the very picture in my mind’s eye of The Great Gatsby’s Jordan Baker, even if her character’s name is misspelled in the show’s playbill), he was in Hollywood, attempting to sell film scripts to the very people he hated and derided behind their backs. An alcoholic from an early age—he claimed to be tubercular, a fact that still is debated by experts and biographers—he drank himself to an early death while his beloved Zelda wasted away in an Asheville, North Carolina, loony bin where she would die in a fire in 1948, the victim of her own mental and emotional instability just as certainly as she was of fire and neglect.
Using his artistic license to incorporate a character from The Great Gatsby into his play—the book’s central figure of Nick Carraway, the ambitious young man who is drawn into Jay Gatsby’s rarefied orbit, here played by an earnest D.J. Clark (Why does Nick sport a fraternity pin on his argyle sweater? Save for re-reading The Great Gatsby to determine if the character wears one in those pages, I’m uncertain. If he doesn’t, Clark needs to rid himself of the distracting geegaw)—Feehely gives his audience entre into the shadowy, otherworldly place where Scott marks time until his passage into the afterlife, examining events and litigating truths and falsehoods that defined his existence, like so much flotsam and jetsam, throughout the 44 years of his life on earth.
Feehely uses this dramatic convention to introduce us to Zelda, whose high-flying adventures and sense of joie de vivre attract Scott with an undeniable certainty reserved only for the charming and the clever, the witty and the smart, the beautiful and the damned (to so egregiously ape the name of another Fitzgerald literary conundrum—is The Beautiful and Damned masterpiece or solipsistic trash?). By illustrating Scott and Zelda’s self-absorbed and vainglorious life so vividly, Feehely shows us their flaws all done up in satins and silks, as colorful as the starched shirts Daisy Buchanan spies in Jay Gatsby’s chifferobe. The playwright avoids any excess theatricality, however, instead he uses it to great effect to more accurately reflect the decadence of that American decade leading up to the Crash of 1929.