15 April 2014
The Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s newest production of Victoria Stewart’s Rich Girl is wonderfully simple in its messages and execution. While the play may depict and ask some of the age-old questions of love and money (wonderfully explained and dissected in dramaturg A. Nora Long’s accompanying features), the play is resounds with the same poignancy as its source materials, broaching the question: How far have we come in dating? Are we still defined by what we offer materialistically to others? How do we create our own self-worth? As a member of the “gold star” generation, I see myself and my peers struggle with what makes us loveable and how we connect with others in an increasingly cold and isolated world. Henry James was either well ahead of his time with his novel Washington Square, or we really haven’t changed as much as hoped, or, perhaps more importantly, with sociopolitical changes, we are forced to reevaluate some of the same struggles and social issues that we thought that we had overcome in years prior. Here, Rich Girl offers much below the surface for those willing to look past the “simple” plot and predictable storytelling.
Aided by a wealth of impressive talent, the Lyric’s Rich Girl tells the story of plain Claudine, a young woman who is controlled by her mother and her future inheritance, and her search for and “success” in love with the charming Henry, a rakish young man who seeks the fame of an artistic life but first he needs the funding to make it happen. Claudine’s mother, Eve, a woman broken by love and heartache in earlier years, is a cynical reminder that wealth buys happiness but at an unfortunate cost. She suspects Henry’s gold-digging intentions and she attempts to send him packing with the help of hefty paycheck to rebuke and give up her daughter Claudine’s advances. Eve’s personal assistant, Maggie, bubbles with the hope of allowing Claudine the potential happiness which her mother Eve never experienced and helps Claudine in her race for marriage before Eve can tear Henry and Claudine apart. Time and life’s unexpected detours get in the way for this young couple, but is it too late to cash the check for one’s happiness? Victoria (Tori) Stewart’s script offers an 11th hour game-changer which makes it feel like anything is possible, a script and journey loaded with possibilities.
Directed by the conscious Courtney O’Connor, Rich Girl is a wonderful journey for these talented female actresses. With the pristine and carefully executed scenic design by Brynna Bloomfield, Eve (played with marvelous haughtiness and gravity by Amelia Broom) and her daughter Claudine (played with the awkward charm and growing independent verve by Sasha Castroverde) navigate the room filled with glass and other breakables. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this simple set with its many thematic intricacies. Maybe because the set is so simple that the prominent door (offering a chance of escape as well as highlighting the trapped nature of the home), the delicate vases and glass windows, and the smartly decorated furniture each resonate with their alluring symbolism and functional application for the actors’ success. Despite its simplicity, the set is wonderfully executed and used by O’Connor and her actors, allowing the space to feel like the cold but accustomed comfort of home. Broom commands the stage with her posture and grace, exuding a woman who is so used to getting what she wants, a product of her years of the “Devil Wears Prada” mentality.
I don’t understand why Castroverde isn’t cast more often. After falling in love with her wonderfully independent and strong performance as Beatrice in Bad Habit Production’s Much Ado . . . With a Twist, I became enamored with her striking presence onstage. Here, she plays the awkward and unconfident Claudine with such sincerity and history that I couldn’t help but want to know more about her past and look forward to what she would become without her mother’s watchful eye. My only complaint is that to make Castroverde seem plain and carelessly awkward, they gave her a hideous wig to mask her handsome features; oh well, I suppose they had to do something, but, really, couldn’t we just embrace for a second that Claudine could actually be pretty but her mother (and environment) has told her that she is not “conventionally” pretty and, therefore, determine her self-worth to the point of self-destruction behavior? I digress. Castroverde’s journey is a joy to watch, as she navigates the beautiful longing of falling in love for the first time. My complaint with Claudine is that we don’t know enough about her, hopelessly limited by the characters in the play. There is only so much that we can learn from her mother. Luckily, we have Maggie. Celeste Oliva plays Maggie for her earnestness and warmth, sharply contrasting with Broom’s twisted views on the world. Though we’re given very few details about Maggie’s history, Oliva attempts to create a fully fleshed-out character to be more than a mere plot device to engage Castroverde’s Claudine in her search for love and self-fulfillment. Oliva’s strongest moments come in an explosive (not literally) outburst in Act II, which offer some of the honest truthfulness that the audience has been waiting to hear someone say. Oliva’s success is her delivery of what could be cliché messages and make them so grounded, so simple that you imagine a best friend sitting you down for a long chat rather than a fictional character berating you for your faults.
Surprisingly, Joe Short’s Henry has the most challenging part to play. A richly ambiguous character, Henry offers Short so many possibilities for line deliveries and character motivations. In the end, we’re unclear whether Henry actually loves Claudine or whether he has been playing with both the audience’s and Claudine’s hearts for the past two hours (or six months as the case may be). Short is just so wonderfully nuanced in his interpretation of a man who loves his work but also may actually find something worthwhile in this self-deprecating young woman. Stewart is careful to give him just enough soft and tender moments, mixed with impulsive and irrational actions, that the audience is left on the edge of their seats like a rom com chick flick of “Does he or doesn’t he?” I’ll leave the girls to debate this in their literary circles, and just give Joe a pat on the back for nailing this understatedly difficult character.
Despite the horrible wig (remember, you can’t hide an actor’s beauty), Costume Designer Mellory Frers does a stunning job of matching these characters with fitting and stylish costumes. With each jacket, Broom exudes more confident and poise; Castroverde’s mismatched clothes resemble a teenager’s attempt at independence with the growing maturity of a young woman; Short’s flattering pants and shirts make him very much the former soccer prep school boy of Claudine’s dreams; and Oliva’s sharp ensemble represent the “hired help” with enough smarts to be her own woman. Wonderfully orchestrated by Director O’Connor, the elements align for this Rich Girl to be a blank check of possibility.
So, what’s the problem? It’s in the audience’s too quick assumption that the story doesn’t need or deserve to be told again. With the original material tackled over a hundred years ago by Henry James, and the movie adaptation by The Heiress, Stewart’s Rich Girl depends on a wealth of notable source materials. Why journey with these characters into the 21st century to the Lyric Stage for another been-done adaptation? Because these actors and this director give such committed performances to these characters’ importance and pursuits. While other productions may trivialize the search for self-love and approval from others, the Lyric’s company writes its own checks and cashes them in spades. Perhaps I am of the age where I wonder how I define and evaluate my own self-worth; perhaps I’ve taken too many Buzzfeed quizzes that ask questions to try to evaluate how my life experiences and successes translate into monetary value. Perhaps, as a young professional, I judge my partner based on his own perceptions of self-worth and I worry too much about placing value on the tangible above the intangibles. For whatever reason, the play and its themes and messages resonated with me. As the Lyric searches to identify with younger audiences (as usual, I was one of the youngest audience members by more than a few decades), I have to hope that my peers will see and appreciate Castroverde and Short’s struggles to succeed and love in the 21st century. With a rich history, Rich Girl may be the best ticket to buy in town for young (and old) alike.