Theatre in the Square's production of Fair and Tender Ladies features three actresses and a trio of musicians, but it is essentially a one-woman show. The adaptation of Lee Smith's novel finds Elizabeth McCommon's Ivy Rowe commanding the stage for the play's entire running time. Reviewing letters she's written since the 1910s, she narrates the story of her life in the mountains of Southwest Virginia.
Original bluegrass songs link Ivy's memories together, and as the years pass, Jennifer Akin and Ginger Poole portray Ivy's sisters, mentors and daughters. Fair and Tender Ladies has moments of humor and heartache, but it proves a surprisingly cerebral show. With a rambling story and a resolutely first-person point-of-view, it's more like an Appalachian treatment of Proust than a Southern tale of hugs and sing-alongs.
Ivy recalls amusing traditions, like firing shotguns and telling ghost stories at major holidays, as well as more serious episodes in a mining company town. Akin portrays a poignance akin to Ophelia in the role of Ivy's unstable sister, while Poole gets plenty of laughs as several steel-willed Southern women, although she makes her voice unnecessarily squeaky in the name of humor. McCommon always comes across as authentic and credible, especially when remembering adolescent romance. The actress only seems self-conscious during the play's admirably frank approach to female sexuality in middle age.
The plot of Fair and Tender Ladies isn't always easy to follow, and it's similarly hard to connect with Ivy's feelings for the absentee male characters. But the ladies of the title have touching relationships, and McCommon makes the audience feel like they actually get to know Ivy Rowe. In its tale of one woman's life and perseverance, Fair & Tender Ladies would have made a great Oprah book, and I mean that in a good way.
Fair and Tender Ladies plays through June 23 at Theatre in the Square, 11 Whitlock Ave., Marietta. Tues.-Sat. 8 p.m. and Sun. 2:30 and 7 p.m. $20-$25. 770-422-8369.
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