by Meghan D'Souza
With a set comprised of family portraits dating back to the early 1900s, vintage floral cloths draped over wooden tables, and a cozy brick fireplace, the audience of The Drag was taken back to the 1920s. Adding to the ambiance was a cast appropriately dressed for the time: ladies in drop-waisted, streamlined dresses paired with the popular costume jewelry of the '20s, and gentlemen in suits. Most exciting was seeing the men later dressed in the flapper dresses, drop waist dresses, and one tall glass of water (Jeff Emrich as The Duchess) in a stunning black number that even the most confident woman would have to take a moment to consider wearing on stage. The 1920s hair accessories placed in both the women's hair and drags' appropriately chosen wigs truly suited the era and, simple as this detail is, brought a nice flair to the experience.
The set, the clothes, the accessories, the music. We in the audience had been teleported to the 1920s.
However, it was not clear if actor Brian Tanner, who played widower Dr. James Richmond, was quite there with us. He looked the part of the doctor that he was. His presence was pleasant. But there was something missing from the lines that he delivered, and I think it was the true emotion behind what he said. Words were delivered, but he did not appear to believe what he said, especially in key scenes. Part of acting is reacting, and that lacked in his performance, as well. The man gets props, though, because this was, indeed, a tough play to put together and his role was most certainly the most challenging.
As Barbara Richmond, Kathy McDonald was a great connection between father Dr. Richmond and his grown daughter Clair Kingsbury. Not only did Ms. McDonald have a beautiful singing voice that carried the audience like it was a magic carpet ride taking us on a quick journey through the lyrics that she sang, she also did a wonderful job of remaining in character through each scene. She kept busy with her character's tasks, she reacted to what other characters said, and she had a believable, auntly chemistry with Richmond's niece, Clair.
Becca Robinson did a beautiful job as Clair. Her pain for her relationship was believable, she never broke character, and she truly inhabited her role as Clair. She reacted to everything going on around her, even if it was a simple statement that someone clear across the stage made. One downside is that, though she has the voice of an angel and one would wish to hear her sing to them endlessly, she had many sorrowful songs to sing, but the sad emotions did not come through with her beautiful voice. It was easy to get caught up in the sound of her voice and forget that the moment was rather devastating.
TJ Besler had a complicated role as Rolly Kingsbury, but he took it on and won. To try to even explain his character would be like explaining the last 70 years of Guiding Light. In short, he was believable from the moment he entered the stage. He was part of major twists in the show and he let loose, so the audience felt every intense emotion. Right when it was getting cheesy to see characters sing unnecessarily to the open space in front of them when they could have sung their stories to the character right behind them so emotions were better felt, Mr. Besler made a change and sang his numbers to the characters around him, using the props on stage for added entertainment. You could also feel and hear the emotion behind the words that he sang. The audience's reaction to this change was positive.
It is no secret that an audience favorite was seeing Gary Tyrrell, who played the flamboyant Clem Hathaway, Jeff Emrich as looks-obsessed Hal Swanson, and Jesse Harthan as flirty Winnie Lewis. These men were loud and proud of their sexuality and added comic relief with their bawdy jokes. The men bounced jokes off each other like they had been friends for years, the conversation flowed like it was their own, and watching them on stage felt as comfortable as if we were viewing them on our television sets and they had filmed their scenes earlier in the day. They each also dressed in women's attire, in the most traditional and trendy 1920s dresses, hairdos, and make up. Tyrrell even resembled 1920s icon Louise Brooks.
Butler Parsons played by Allen Dietrich was one of those "There's no such thing as a small role, just small actors" stories. Sure, Parsons was not seen as often as the aforementioned characters, but he left the audience smiling with his rendition of "Making Whoopie," his zip-lipped way of handing Rolly's lifestyle, the details he did in the background during the Drag Ball, and giving an intense vibe during the most emotional scene of the play.
Lighting appeared limited in this play, but mixed with how the actors behaved, the way the lighting was acceptable. At one point, Clair was singing her thoughts about her husband Rolly in front of him, but with the use of faded lights and Rolly's acting, it was obvious to us viewers that he was not supposed to hear what she was saying. Otherwise, lighting was not a main factor in the play, but that was not a bad thing.
The best thing is that fellow audience members got big laughs and witnessed a bit of a tragedy that left them thinking.
As the cliche goes... we laughed, we cried... this was a play worth spending a Friday night seeing.
Meghan D'Souza lives in Coralville with her husband and beloved dog. She is a University of Iowa graduate and works at the Iowa City Public Library. She has written for The Burlington Hawk Eye and is currently a freelance writer.