Theater : A wonderful night with Mrs. Miller
With his new play "Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing," which opened last Thursday at the Vineyard Playhouse, Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright James Lapine holds up a mirror - not only to an era, but also to a collective attitude that once again has found relevance. Forget the facts; perception and reality are interchangeable. Add music and make us laugh.
And laugh we do. The play, written and directed by Mr. Lapine, focuses around the real life of 59-year-old church choir singer Elva Miller, who becomes a pop culture celebrity with her swooping off-key, off-tempo renditions of soft-rock songs like "Moon River," "The Beat Goes On," "Downtown." Her delivery is full-throated and semi-operatic.
"The world is her shower," a character quips.
Just as she believes in the best of all possible worlds ("Being depressed is such a silly waste of time"), despite the war in Vietnam, segregation, and the turmoil of the late 1960s, Mrs. Miller believes she can sing.
Stumbled on by Larry Drummond (Brad Oscar), a savvy record producer, and managed by an ambitious young college dropout (Nick Blaemire), Mrs. Miller becomes one of the country's first novelty acts, a disposable celebrity making regular television appearances on The Tonight Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and Bob Hope's USO show.
Brilliantly crafted by Mr. Lapine, the play finds its balance between its fast-paced laugh-out-loud scenes and its fragile backdrop of a growing national consciousness. The clock is ticking on Mrs. Miller's 15 minutes of fame.
Mrs. Miller's back-up singers (Carly Hughes, Jacqui Polk, and Eric Santagata) keep the energy percolating, foreshadowing each minimally set scene with relevant popular songs of the 60s.
But it is Mrs. Miller, as portrayed by the film, television, and Tony winning Broadway actress, Debra Monk ("Prelude to a Kiss," "Picnic." "Chicago," "Curtains," and a long list of films that includes "The Producers," "Bridges of Madison County," "Mrs. Winterbourne"), who masterfully presents the very humorous, matronly character with such grace and earnestness as to give the role dimension and sympathy.
Photos by Ralph Stewart
Mr. Lapine says, "I tried to write about this era a couple of times. But it's tough. It could have just been a joke." The most difficult aspect for him was trying to hold his focus and pare down the material to fit the one hour and 40 minute format. "I love the character [of Mrs. Miller], imperfect by trying to live in an absolute world."
Ms. Monk creates Mrs. Miller as a well-meaning, please-and-thank you woman - unflinchingly proper, determinedly innocent, and blindly trusting in the prescribed order of things in a world that seems to be inventing its own truths by popular consensus. "I don't think about the future, she says, "or worry about the past."
There are moments in the show when Ms. Monk's beautiful soprano voice becomes melodic and touching. But just when it seems safe to relax, she takes a soaring high dive into an uncharted pitch. And Mrs. Miller says, "I'm classically trained, you know."
"I just can't get over her," Mr. Lapine says, using words like "magical," to describe working with Ms. Monk. "She's so easy to direct she's like driving a Maserati."
Playing her husband, Emmy-winning television and film actor Larry Bryggman (Dr. John Dixon on "As the World Turns") deftly adds a tension Mrs. Miller can't easily fix. Mr. Miller, a resident of the Clairmont Convalescent Home, angrily accepts the reality of his circumstances that his wife refuses to acknowledge as she dabs at his mouth, and sings "Nearer My God To Thee."
And then there's her niece, Joelle (Molly Camp), at first hesitant and shy, who transforms into a fully realized hippie, still trying to protect her aunt, when Mrs. Miller admits, "I woke up one morning and the whole world had changed."
Under the musical direction of Michael Starobin, the eight-person cast - each of who seems born to the role he or she plays - contributes significantly to the show's romp and high-energy style. Following a well-attended dress rehearsal, the entire audience was brought to their feet.
A reading of "Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing" was presented two years ago at the Playhouse, where Mr. Lapine's productions of "Dirty Blonde" and "Fran's Bed" also debuted before opening in New York. Martha's Vineyard, the Lapines' seasonal home from May to August, provides a safe place to both create and perform. "Here I'm not nervous," he says. "Vineyarders are a more generous audience than in New York. I'm glad to be on Martha's Vineyard among friends."
"Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing," Vineyard Playhouse, Vineyard Haven. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 7 pm; Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, 8 pm. (Saturday matinees, 3 pm, Sept. 27 and Oct. 4.) Runs through Oct. 4. 508-696-6300; vineyardplayhouse.org.