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Post Haste — Hedgerow Theatre

safe_imageEmily Post was a well-published, well-connected writer who found her enduring cash cow of a subject, etiquette, while observing the manners of people she met during a 1915 cross-country automobile tour, a commission she sought avidly and received from Collier’s Magazine, which published regular articles about, and later, the full journal of Mrs. Post’s excursion.

Her partner and driver on her transcontinental trek from New York to San Francisco was her son, Edwin Main Post, Jr., from whom Emily was mildly estranged because Ned blamed Emily for the scandalous 1906 breakup of her marriage to his father, even though the father, also Edwin, was known philanderer who’d been found fooling around with theater chorines.

Post’s objective was to get to San Francisco in time for the opening of the Pan American Exposition which, besides being a World’s Fair, was the Bay City’s way of showing how well it recovered from its signature event of 1906, a massively destruction earthquake.

Emily and Ned’s trip West is chronicled in an amiably attractive play, “Post Haste,” by Frank E. Reilly. Its world premiere performance at Hedgerow Theatre shows it to be as jaunty and as resilient as Emily and Ned were on their journey.

It isn’t the depth or insight that grabs you about Reilly’s engaging scripts. It’s the way it casually but firmly shows you how two people’s attitude towards the larger world is affected by seeing it and how two people, who happen to be mother and son, mend fences and bond in ways that will be indelible and eternal.

Reilly writes anecdotally, following Post’s style, while Penelope Reed as Emily and Brock D. Vickers endow the Posts with charm, a sense of wonder, and a shared joy for their shared experience. The result is like going along on a friendly ride with graceful, captivating people who shed prejudices along with dinner clothes as they leave the East and head to the less traveled, less sophisticated, less affected regions of the early 20th century American Midwest and beyond. (You should realize I believe the Midwest starts at Pittsburgh. Emily have judged the region’s beginning point at Toledo, Ohio.)

Reed and Vickers, excellent as individual and as an ensemble, visibly relax and enjoy the adventures inherent in the American landscape, as their excursion proceeds. Meanwhile, Emily is taking stock of the way people react towards the  travelers, in particular how kind and helpful they are to strangers in their midst. Emily is taken by the warmth people show and comes to the conclusion good manners are determined by the respect you give another human being and not by what fork one uses or by a series of stilting rituals and behaviors.

Emily’s trip on the just-opened Lincoln Highway (in 1915, Route 30 until Chicago, then Route 66) awakens her to the number range of people are continent holds. As happy as Emily and Ned to be among the lively cosmopolitanism of a bustling American town like Chicago, they are more impressed by the reception and fellowship they receive in a small county dozens of miles away from Chi.

For Emily, this is a bit of  revelation, and Reed expresses that. Emily’s life has been led in patrician comfort. Her father, Bruce Price, was a rich architect and Emily attended finishing school before she alighted on the world.  A small Illinois encampment or New Mexico outpost, no matter how artistic its denizens are, are far different from Washington Square, resorts like Tuxedo Bay, or the Newport, R.I. society in which Post circulated. Reed and Vickers make it interesting to see how Emily and Ned react to people who are virtually planets removed from their usual milieu. (Edwin is a junior at Harvard.) It’s also fun to see them encounter unusual situations, social and automotive.

Hearing Emily and Ned’s impressions matter, as does their dwindling hauteur, because Reilly centers “Post Haste” on the attitudinal changes his characters display than the sights they see.

It’s people that are of interest to Reilly, and he’d much rather have Emily tell you nice and surprisingly cultured the people in rural Illinois are than about the Wrigley Tower or whatever was the tourist destination in Chicago that year.

Mud is a big part of the Posts’ trip, and Reed is funny and inclusively confidential as she speaks of the various encounters Emily and Ned have with mud once they’re off the paved, well-worn part of the Lincoln Highway and using barely graded dirt roads with steep ascents, sans guardrails. Ned is doing the driving, but Reed’s Emily makes his ordeal sound harrowing as he endures gully after gully and uses all his strength to keep the car, with its American engine, British chassis, which means the steering wheel is on the right, and Daimler parts, from careening off a narrow, unpaved ravine that’s a sheer 500-foot drop on either side.

NealBoxBoth Emily and Ned become handy at making do. Accoutrements that seemed so necessary during preparations in New York are jettisoned for weight and superfluity as the Posts pull westward. These included the china plates, finely woven baskets, and silverware that comes with a picnic basket. The Posts become more interested in trying the local food and eating with people. The supposedly essential lap robes, dusters, and goggles Emily and Ned don at the beginning of their trip tend to be disappear as the pair wings life more and takes in more nature. The journey becomes less of a studied ritual and more of a lark of discovery, and Reed and Vickers show that.

They also show how Emily and Ned come to know each other as adult people in a way that differs from relating as mother and son. Their conversations become more natural, far-ranging, and personal, as opposed to being forced and formal when they first embark. The Posts are not only becoming acquainted with the country, they’re getting to know each other.

Emily and Ned eventually have a good time listening to one another and sharing their adventures and observations.

This is where the Hedgerow audience comes in. We have a good time listening to the Posts as well.

No great life lesson or philosophy is going to be discussed or advanced. Neither character is going to experience a dramatic epiphany. It’s the joy of appreciating what you see before you and each other that becomes important.

Reed and Vickers are to be congratulated for keeping things so brisk and carefree. Reilly, too. His writing is conversational, not lecturing. He knows that people are interested in people, not landscapes, and he keeps “Post Haste” on a human level at which Reed and Vickers can charm with their individuality and joy of living.

At the onset of “Post Haste,” Emily and Ned make a wager.  Ned bets that at the end of this first trip, he and his mother will take another one. He will be the decider of his own victory or loss, and he is the one who is tested as to whether he can endure 3,000 miles of his mother and the one who will agree to another outing or not. It’s interesting to see the way the stakes develop.

“Post Haste” was once a one-character play that tripled its cast since Penelope Reed became involved with it. After a 2010 reading, Reed suggested to Reilly that the son be integral to the play than on offstage character who beeps a horn to summon his mother back to the car. The tension and amiability Reed imagined in the byplay between Ned and Emily pay off. It helps to have two people talking to each other, and its good theater to see some of Vickers’s reactions as Reed speaks, unable to see him, as Emily rides in the back of the car while Ned, naturally, steers from the front.

The third character emerged during rehearsals for the world premiere at Hedgerow. He’s not listed in the program, but he’s been dubbed Thomas the butler, and he appears any time Reed or Vickers need assistance from someone, and they can’t logically or logistically provide help for each other. Josh Portera portrays Thomas with the right touch of finesse and mild contempt at these people he may consider to be spoiled. On opening night, Thomas’s presence came in handy. Reed as Emily is tasting a chocolate dessert that is a specialty in the Midwestern home she’s visiting. Just as she’s about to partake, she drops the spoon she’ll need to sample the sweet. Without missing a beat, and with both sharp and comic presence of mind, Reed picks up the spoon and wipes it on the right white glove Portera’s butler is wearing.

Just goes to show anything can happen in live theater, and Reed was ready for the challenge.

Frank E. Reilly directs, and he keeps his play moving at a brisk pace, much more sprightly than the 40 mph average Vickers’s Ned can achieve in a car that uses 8.5 gallons per mile when gasoline costs $0.25 a gallon (which sounds high for 1915).

Penelope Reed holds the stage gloriously as Emily, a woman of great energy and vision who could with her family money, and her settlement from Edwin, Sr., be wintering in Manhattan and summering in Newport, as she may lapse into doing anyway. For now, she is a woman with a career and some fame four years before women in the U.S. are granted the privilege to vote.

Emily is a doer, and Reed captures her energy, ambition, and enthusiasm. The Collier’s assignment could be a major boost to her. She campaigned for it, and now she must fulfill her commitment with some distinction. By the time Post embarks on her trip, she has published several novels with delicious titles such as “Purple and Fine Linen” and “Woven in the Tapestry” and many magazine pieces. Heading across country is considered daring for a woman, even with a strapping son along for company. And to drive.

Reed finds the rhythm to make Reilly’s text compelling as a story. It’s a fine text, and well organized to be a satisfying curio, but its presentation requires a voice, tone, and sense of excitement or eagerness to animate it and keep you listening. Reed, by being a happy, friendly, spirited Emily makes that happen. She’s like an entertaining dinner companion that has a busy life and can relate her experiences and observations amusingly.

Reilly, working from Post’s text and other material provides the experiences, observation, and conversational nature of the piece, Reed its sparkle and zest.

Brock D. Vickers always conveys much personality beyond his natural handsomeness. Already, when you first see him as Ned, you sense his reserve and skepticism about spending the next three weeks in close confines with his mother, but within the collegiate coolness and ennui, you see some excitement about adventure and someone who begrudgingly respects his mother and won’t show it to her. The wit and humor Ned eventually expresses is already in Vickers’s eyes.

Ned has literally been ripped from Harvard to accompany in Emily, who told the Crimson deans Edwin would learn much more exploring America with her than he will from a classroom.

An autodidact’s amen to that! (I always tell people, with apologies to Grace K. Exner and Berton Barsky, that my greatest teachers were Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, George Bernard Shaw, and Ed Sulivan.)

Vickers proves to be a quietly competent Ned who can tend to the car’s needs, fixing punctures and what not, and keep Emily’s business needs straight.

Vickers’s Ned, always dapper even picnicking, working on those tires, or wrestling those treacherous muddy hills, is impressed by the United States and what he finds in both Chicago and western outposts. Like Emily, he learns to be resourceful and economic.

Given that Ned has about a third to say as Emily, Vickers once again speaks with his eyes, reacting at times to Emily’s fussiness or fervor behind him. It’s when Ned feels more comfortable exchanging his perceptions with his mother that you see the maturity Vickers gives Ned allow for camaraderie and open conversation with a friend who happens also to be your mother, a mother you, in your teen years, disdained for her going ahead with a divorce and forging further forward with a career.

Vickers’s is a compact performance, but a broad one that gains interest as Ned feels freer to express himself more expansively.

The “Post Haste” set is dominated by the car which, like the scenery, was designed well by Zoran Kovcic, who angled and raked the vehicle so you can always see Emily clearly even when she is sitting directly behind Ned. Cathie Miglionico’s costumes show the opulence and wealth of the Posts being influenced by comfort and practicality as layers get shed, looks become more casual, and ties and scarves get put aside.

“Post Haste” runs through Sunday, June 28, at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, in Rose Valley, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 and can be obtained by calling 610-565-4211 or by visiting www.hedgerowtheatre.org.

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