All Things Entertaining and Cultural
On November 22, 1963, three high school cheerleaders are preparing for a pep rally while discussing life from their teenage perspectives.
We see them immediately prior to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, so the attitudes and mores of the 1950s are in effect, and the girls talk about the typical things you might find in a “Gidget” or “Tammy” movie of the time — their boyfriends, other girls’ boyfriends, girls who don’t have boyfriends, their boundaries as they protect their virginity, positive and negative cheers, the importance of popularity, leadership, high school, and moving on to college.
The cheerleaders in Jack Heifner’s 1976 play, “Vanities,” are not special. That’s the point. They are sparkplugs and may be more motivated to arrange or participate in things than many in their school or community in general — In addition to being cheerleaders, they plan dances, organize events, and are clearly among the most popular and socially successful kids in their small Texas town — but they mirror girls of their era throughout the United States. The important thing to remember is that era includes the change from ’50s orderliness and shared, predictable values to the post-assassination ’60s which spawned challenge to authority, political protest, and the sexual revolution. More importantly to Joanne, Kathy, and Mary, common names Heifner may have chosen to indicate how much his characters represent ordinary girls of their time, it is also a period when traditions and conventions are challenged, inequality based on gender is protested, and liberation means women have a voice and a choice in the new sexual order. “Hear them roar,” as one of the germane songs director Penelope Reed chooses to enhance her revealing production of “Vanities” at Hedgerow Theatre, says.
Joanne, Kathy, and Mary will be seen in three critical periods in the life — on that fateful November day in 1963 when in true Texas fashion, school would be dismissed early but the football game would proceed; at their last planning session as upper classmen and officers of their sorority house prior to their 1968 graduation; and about five years later at a sort of reunion after all three have experienced some life apart from each other and wended their way to reside, coincidentally, in the New York area, Kathy and Mary in the city, Joanne with her high school sweetheart, Ted, and a passel of children in Connecticut. Over this 10-year span, you see how each of the women has matured while retaining some trait Heifner embedded in the first scene that indicates the direction Joanne, Kathy, and Mary, may go as individuals. Even as they become more distinct, Heifner’s characters stand for others who made choices similar to Joanne, who maintains the ideas and lifestyle her parents had in the 50s; Mary, who thrives on the adventure and freedom the 60s make openly possible, and Kathy, who sees the virtue of both worlds but opts more towards the times that are a-changin’ and is unsure where her life, with which she is currently content, will take her next.
Heifner’s bittersweet comedy was one of the most popular plays of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Its original off-Broadway run lasted for years, and “Vanities” became a staple of regional theater for more than a decade. A musical version premiered in 2009. The show was not only entertaining, but it told the story of a lot of women people of its time would recognize.
Almost 40 years later, “Vanities” remains a good, solid piece. It is a chronicle of a time in which life became more complex and began to divide people based on their attitudes towards tradition and liberation (which do not necessarily cancel each other out and can be compatible). It is also a story about three girls about whom you come to care. Joanne, Kathy, and Mary may be types. They may represent many, but Heifner has them emerge as individuals with values they have developed on their own after a period of separation and experience.
The play is also about friendship and how change, growth, and distance affect it. Joanne, Kathy, and Mary are inseparable in throughout their school years, from grade school to college. They do everything together and form a team that presides over activities in corridors and on campuses. In its last and most poignant act, “Vanities” shows that while a certain regard may never be eroded, people at age 29 may not feel as warm or close to people who were their everyday companions at age 19.
At the Hedgerow Theatre, that act takes primary focus, not only because it is the most dramatic but because of the performance of Sarah J. Gafgen as Kathy, the trio’s core, the visionary organizer whose leadership binds Joanne and Mary to her and forms them into a group when you know that Joanne and Mary may have never pursued a friendship on their own.
In all three acts of “Vanities,” two played before intermission, and one after, Gafgen takes a calmer, more maternal approach to her part than Meredith Beck as Joanne or Alexis Newbauer as Mary, who are more opinionated, more adversarial, and more representative of their assigned age range (18,22, or 29) than Kathy.
Kathy is quieter. She is more matter-of-fact and contemplative. She enjoys her popularity and agrees with her friends she doesn’t know how she’d live if she wasn’t among the most popular girls in high school — Heifner tells us Kathy is the most popular. — but she is also thoughtful. Like the strong leader she is, you can see Kathy being open-minded and taking in suggestions before making a judgment about which way to go. While Joanne natters on about girly gossip and high school doings, and Mary baits the most prudish and proper Joanne by talking about allowing her boyfriend some liberties and wanting to “go all the way,” Kathy makes lists and keeps everything in order. She doesn’t commit to Joanne’s conventional view of the world — home, church, family, and football — or Mary’s yen to travel and test the strength of her morality, which she hopes is not all that strong. Kathy is practical. Her interest is to see that a project is done right, with no details unconsidered or omitted. She also wants standards to be maintained. When she leaves high school, she wants to leave behind a legacy of excellence whether it be in how to organize a school dance or the best way to decorate what is essentially a basketball court using tissue paper and chicken wire. When she leaves college, she wants to be sure her sorority remains the most gracious and respectable on campus, the one incoming freshmen with polish would want to join. Kathy can dish about boys, hairdos, and clothes, but she observes more than Joanne and Mary and takes matters a bit more seriously than they do.
What’s more, Kathy stands a middle ground between her friends. She can see the satisfaction is Joanne’s view of getting married, having children, and settling in a pleasant suburb while her husband works and the romance in Mary’s, for whom dating is imperative but marriage something for another time, and who wants to see the world. Kathy is the most stable, the most mature and secure, Mary Richards amid the yin and yang of Phyllis Lindstrom and Rhoda Morgenstern.
Gafgen immediately conveys the difference between Kathy and her friends. In the high school scenes, she exudes an assurance her mates don’t yet have. Joanne and Mary worry about whether they’ll always be the most popular and respected. Kathy, as played by Gafgen, takes such matters in her stride. She is confident her ease with people and her leadership will prevail in any situation. While others fuss and fret, Kathy makes lists of things to do in her notebook and believes that if you make a good plan and follow it, success will be the result.
Gafgen truly shines in the third act. Although Joanne and Mary divide most of the action, Gafgen, as Kathy, watches to see the dynamics. She sides with nor encourages either friend. Her intention is to bring three people who were once inseparable together at her posh Manhattan garden apartment for a nice reunion complete with champagne and caviar. She doesn’t know she’ll be witness to a philosophical slugfest and more between Joanne, who stands for hearth, home, and belief in marital fidelity, and Mary, who runs a gallery that sells erotic art and wants to ride the high life for as far as it will take her. Gafgen’s discipline, the poise she gives Kathy, lets one see you can have a little of both lifestyles and be content.
Kathy isn’t totally satisfied. Her plan to become a physical education teacher fizzled when she realized she did not like children, at least high school girls who were not as obedient to her commands as Joanne and Mary were, and when she realized her students knew more about certain games and sexual activity than she did. Kathy becomes a mystery. We never learn key things about her, but we can see she remains the most rational of the cheerleaders we meet in Scene One of “Vanities”. That is because Gafgen plays her as the one in the trio who has adapted best to adulthood, the one who may not have followed the path Heifner foreshadows for her in the first two acts but who has learned something about life and is making choices rather than living on a wave of tradition or going without personal direction with the flow of the Manhattan art crowd.
Gafgen plays her role with simplicity and dignity. In the schools scenes, you could see how Kathy became a leader for her organizational skills but not how she could be more popular than the prettier and perkier Joanne and Mary. In the reunion scene, Gafgen shows that Kathy doesn’t float along on expectation or follow a plan that proves not to offer what she wanted from life. While Joanne becomes an anachronism is her own time, and Mary revels in the freedoms of the ’70s, Kathy has reached a plateau and has to consider what comes next.
It isn’t because the final act of “Vanities” has the most substance that it came off the best in the Hedgerow staging. It’s because it’s the one in which all three actresses — Gafgen, Beck,and Newbauer — were most on their game and most diligent about characterization.
The first act of the Hedgerow production moves too fast. Joanne, Mary, and even Kathy tend to chatter non-stop while moving from topic of girlish interest to topic of girlish interest, mostly boys and sexual restraint. The high-pitched, high-speed mode of conversation is realistic, but it keeps the characters from establishing themselves as individual human beings. Joanne, Kathy, and Mary are types from the get-go, but they are also people who represent a type. The audience has to have the time in the first act to differentiate among them and hear key statements for each that will redound later in Heifner’s play.
I believed the scene successfully depicted the way three girls might act and talk while preparing for a pep rally, but I missed the subtleties and character traits that would have been revealed by more careful, pointed reading of Heifner’s lines. The hurried approach seemed more busy than lively. I wanted to get to know Joanne, Kathy, and Mary more personally. Instead, they come off as an amorphous group. Only Gafgen separates her character, Kathy, from looking as if all the girls had a herd mentality. The rift between Joanne and Mary is presaged in this scene, but it’s hard to keep track of it because the actresses, or Reed as the director, keeps the pace too brisk. Lines fall on top of each other, punctuated by giggles or squeals. I know from having a sister this is often what teenage girls sound like when they’re together — apologies to Lisa, Linda, Toby, and Bonnie — but from “Vanities,” I need more definition, more attention to context, than the first scene at Hedgerow provided. The characters, especially Kathy, were established but not developed. You had a sense of who each was, but you didn’t feel as if you knew them. They remained types instead of young women who would require your interest for two more acts.
Speed did not take away from enjoyment of Heifner’s dialogue (trialogue?), but it took some perspective and some satisfaction from it. I felt as if I had to glean information and differences by picking out salient bits as heavy traffic went by instead of having some key points emphasized and primed to be built upon in subsequent acts.
The second scene at Hedgerow was tamer, but it lacked some the wistfulness and tension three girls, who have had the shelter of school and their mutual company to protect and buoy them, express while they face life without the institutional structure and social pillars on which they thrived. You can see personalities emerging. Newbauer definitely takes Mary and her defiance to a new level, and Beck reinforces Joanne’s embrace of the conventional, but once again, you develop no regard for the girls — young women — as people.
Heifner’s jokes become more important than the girls’ revelatory statements or declarations. It’s funny that Joanne earns a degree in music because she waited so long to register for courses each semester, offerings from the music department were the only ones left. Mary majors in interior design by the same kind of default. Only precise and orderly Kathy follows through with her high school intention. The implication is Joanne and Mary didn’t need to attend college. They did it more for social reasons or to please parents. Only Kathy had a plan that required a degree or a sensibility that lets her appreciate the value of a seriously pursued university education. You hear Beck and Newbauer tell you this, but again, speed and chattering is put ahead of measured line delivery, measure than can include speed and an excited tone of voice, so the subtleties of “Vanities” are lost in the tide.
I wanted to have more time and opportunity to savor what Heifner’s characters were saying, what they were telling me about themselves. I realized all that was happening, but I wanted to slow the train and let certain moments have some air so they could resonate and register and show more how “Vanities” hangs together.
The third and final scene is much more of a success. It sidles into its main action. It gives the actresses a chance to breathe. Beck takes particular advantage of this. Joanne, the most limited of the characters in terms of world view and response to events between 1963 and 1976, shows what her stances and beliefs have wrought. She remains a less interesting character than Mary or Kathy, but in Beck’s hands, Joanne makes a stand for a point of view that is often denigrated or ignored without people taking the time to realize it is legitimate and fine for the person who chooses it.
Joanne, because she has chosen to be a suburban homemaker who is more devoted to Ted, her husband, and her children than to having a lifestyle that shows the “long way, baby” woman have come in the ’70s, becomes a victim of sort of Mary’s, and even Kathy’s, disapproval.
Beck gives Joanne a stand. She argues well in her favor. The character, and Beck’s performance, make one think that Joanne is perfectly justified in choosing a traditional vs. a modern role in life. She is happy in that role, and no liberation movement should be so blind that it refuses to recognize Joanne’s decisions are fine if they suit her and her desires. It is easy to make Joanne looks like a backwards fool, the yokel or innocent who hasn’t advanced with the times. Beck made her sympathetic.
Of course, that may have been in response to Newbauer making Mary into such a critical and biting Gorgon. As Heifner’s characters go, I identify most with Mary, the freest spirit who prefers travel and the cultural world to anything resembling a family, obligation, or everyday responsibility. Newbauer’s Mary is relentless in attacking Joanne’s lifestyle. She doesn’t regard it as a legitimate alternative to hers. She sees it as capitulation and as an illusion. In one way, she is sure that Joanne is deluded.
The differences between Joanne and Mary end in a catfight that Reed stages and Beck and Newbauer play to the hilt.
Nevertheless, it is Gafgen as the mysterious, amused, and non-confrontational Kathy who dominates the act with her quiet, cultivated class.
Kathy, by the way, is not totally blameless in ruining Joanne’s reunion and day out in the city. She has been in touch with Ted and knows something about Joanne a friend would help another friend control. It is telling that she doesn’t help but encourages Joanne to a behavior Kathy knows is harmful to her.
Reed and her cast give the third act weight. Enough has come through from the first two scenes to give texture to all that happens in the third. That texture would be richer and more effective if some time and care had been taken to let matters play more naturally in the earlier scenes.
That said, it was a treat to have the chance to see “Vanities” once more and know that it holds up because the women it depicts may be rooted in a crucial time period, but the things they want and talk about are eternal and universal. It may that in 1976, Jack Heifner could shock an audience by talking openly about abortion. Shock may be gone, but the issue remains a subject of controversy, and even while legal and available from qualified doctors, it has an emotional toll on some women who elect it. Pacing aside, the heart and meaning of “Vanities” comes through. I hope one day to have the opportunity to see the musical version.
“Vanities” runs through Sunday, February 9, at the Hedgerow Theatre, 146 West Rose Valley Road, in Rose Valley, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $34 to $29 with discounts for seniors, students with I.D., and people age 30 and younger. They can be obtained by calling 215-565-4211 or going online to www.hedgerowtheatre.org.