The star-crossed lovers had met at a Montgomery, Alabama, country club where Scott had been posted when he joined the U.S. Army during The Great War, attempting to add physical heft and bravery to his list of easily discernible traits (such as being quick-witted, light on his feet and able to romance the most beautiful debutantes of the time). Zelda, a zany and madcap Southern belle—everyone in Montgomery thought her the most talented girl in town, she was quick to proclaim—whose very existence seemed defined by her lack of decorum, just as certainly as it was represented by her frequent lack of panties, was his greatest conquest and his most daunting project. How could a promising, but heretofore unchallenged, Yankee boy hope to win the heart of a beauty with corn-colored hair?
As different as an aristocratic young Southern woman and a precociously, preternaturally talented Yankee boy could possibly be, Zelda and Scott were drawn to each other like moths to a flame, like a starving person to a groaning board laden with delicacies, like a drunk hungering for a drink of hooch. No wonder, then, that Feehely was so captivated by their story that he would put pen to paper to create a play that would do them justice. And, make no mistake about it, that is exactly what the playwright achieves with Outside Paradise.
Scott’s love of florid prose and colorful discourse is palpable throughout Feehely’s surprisingly well-edited script (perhaps he was visited by the ghost of Maxwell Perkins—here played by Ricardo Andres Puerta, quite possibly the best looking man to be found on a Nashville stage) that brings the whole story, which features characters as far-ranging as Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein (played by the versatile Luke Hatmaker and the remarkably poised Adrienne Hall), Scott’s vapid and vacuous, uptight and upright Catholic parents (Hatmaker is his something-of-a-milquetoast father and the luminous Kallen Prosterman is his doting, if rather smothering, overprotective mother).
Glore, Hall and Prosterman play a trio of young flappers who, over the course of the play, portray all the various and sundry women who come in and out of the lives of both Scott and Zelda, while Hatmaker and Puerta enact all the men’s roles. Which leaves only Steakley, Richmond and Clark to each assay one character, allowing them more opportunity to craft performances that are more fully dimensional and, in turn, more believable and even accessible, despite the high-toned, upper crust avarice, greed and abandon with which their characters dance their seductive tango with life—real, after a fashion, for Scott and Zelda ; imaginary, of course, for Nick Carraway.
Throughout the course of Feehely’s 90-minute play (it is presented sans interval, as the British are wont to say), Steakley completely cloaks himself in the personage of Scott Fitzgerald (did you know he was named after his second cousin, thrice removed Francis Scott Key, the composer of our national anthem?), effectively playing the writer with such grace and, quite frankly, grit that you forget you are watching a performance and instead you find yourself completely enraptured by a man’s life playing out onstage before you. So sublimely does Steakley inhabit Fitzgerald—or perhaps it is the other way around—that you believe everything written by Feehely (who also lifts some of Fitzgerald’s best-known writing for his own edifying purposes), making the whole experience all the more entertaining and elucidating.
Richmond is Steakley’s perfect mate—in fact, it’s difficult to imagine any other Nashville actress up to the challenge of this script or her character’s legend—and she matches his intensity with a beautifully delivered performance that once again proves her unparalleled in her total deference to the woman she is playing onstage. Her performance would be considered revelatory if Richmond hadn’t already proven her range and put tremendous talent on display so effectively already. Her Zelda Sayre in Outside Paradise cannot be more completely different from her character of Maybelline in Nate Eppler’s Long Way Down, but Richmond’s portrayal of the headstrong Southern belle replicates the actress’ ferocity with an alarming zeal that would be overacting by an actress of lesser skill.
Feehely’s coterie of young actors—Clark, Puerta, Hatmaker, Prosterman, Hall and Glore—also rise to the challenge of presenting the world premiere of what could possibly become a very impressive literary achievement, carrying the weight of such an honor with much dignity.
While Feehely’s script provides the structure for the production, the design aesthetic for Outside Paradise—so extraordinarily realized by lighting designer Richard Davis (who brings a kaleidoscope of colors to the stage through his almost ethereal lighting), set designer Bekah Reimer (who creates a gorgeously appointed Art Deco setting for the play) and costume designer Jessica Mueller (her period fashions, using a palate of creams and tans, is only weakened by the appearance of character pumps on the feet of many of the actresses).
The wonderfully evocative music design and direction of Kim Bretton and Celeste Krenz provides a musical score that so effectively captures the tone of the period after 1920 and up to and including 1940. The musical selections are certain to whisk you away to the Jazz Age and to envelop you in the still compelling vicissitudes of the Roaring ‘20s and beyond. Alyssa Maddox’s choreography adds to the overall feel of the production, set as it is to the tunes of some of the period’s best known songs, while Rebekah Hampton’s aerial choreography gives the show a sense of adventure only possible through flight.
Outside Paradise, the play’s very title is another example of wordplay involving another Fitzgerald (he always prided himself on the titles he gave his works, even if he didn’t exactly cotton to The Great Gatsby, as legend would have it) tome—This Side of Paradise—continues onstage at Belmont University (this is Actors Bridge Ensemble’s annual co-production with the university’s department of theatre and dance) through next weekend. You really should see it and give yourself over to the excesses of the 1920s and the story of a young man and the girl with whom he fell madly, passionately in love.
- Outside Paradise. Written and directed by Bill Feehely. Presented by Actors Bridge Ensemble and Belmont University’s Department of Theatre and Dance. At The Black Box Theatre, Belmont University, Nashville. Through November 19. For details, go to www.actorsbridge.org.