Pictured: Cheryl Weaver. Photo by J. Robert Schraeder/Spinning Tree Theatre.
By Bec Pennington
Located inside the stone remnants of a 1910 parks district building at the southern end of Penn Valley Park, Just Off Broadway Theatre is an intimate black box theater with the perfect ambiance for a one-woman play, and Spinning Tree Theatre has just the right one for us. A glass of wine and a friend at one’s side is all one really needs to round out a great evening of entertainment. Compliments to Andrew & Michael Grayman-Parkhurst, Managing and Artistic Directors of Spinning Tree, and to Doug Weaver, Director, as well as the crew for a fantastic work.
Diana Vreeland described her own famous living room as “a garden from hell,” and as lights come up, De De Deville’s set captures this in layered reds and glowing gold lamps, novelty pillows, and eclectic collections of what my grandmother used to call glass birds.
Mrs Vreeland is hosting a dinner party this evening, and it’s evident she has ulterior motives, but is frustrated with an unfamiliar lack of money (and her need to ignore this trivial issue) and her friends’ annoying concern with her future. We only get tidbits of her intentions, as well as of her real circumstances, peppered in amidst grand tales of famous characters and haute couture.
There are a few fourth wall breaks, which could be anxiety-inducing for an audience that came to quietly sit in the dark and let someone else be seen, except Cheryl Weaver embodies her subject with perfect timing and disarming charm. Her mid-atlantic accent recalls the highbrow training of yesteryear, suggesting Mrs. Vreeland’s upbringing straddled both sides of the ocean and only the highest of society.
Vreeland has recently left her job as Editor-in-Chief at Vogue, most obviously not by her own decision, but we’re not privy yet to how. A copy of the New York Post sits tantalizingly center stage, promising to fill in the holes. She’d like to read it too, but fears to do so, dragging it along with her as she paces and frets over the appropriateness of a chair or arrangement of flowers. Every time she looks at it, she reads a little more, but can’t allow herself to focus on it, instead comforting herself with regaling us of the grand places and people she met in days gone by. Every once in a while she checks in with her maid by intercom, always receiving a reply in gruff French. Just returned from a hasty vacation, a tour through Europe she assures us she has done many times before with her now deceased husband whom she adored, she now pauses her dinner planning to dance to his favorite music.
Vreeland’s tangent story-telling appears shallow, she’s preoccupied with clothes, cars, colors, but her knowledge of fashion is obviously deep. She name-drops with knowing looks and mostly assumes the audience’s familiarity with these people and things, but is happy to explain anyway. Sometimes the novelty she has chosen to focus on is only a narrow part of the story, as her observance of the exiled Spanish Royal court taking refuge in a French hotel, the ladies stumbling about with baskets – we can tell from her words that they were in a state of shock, their lives completely upended, but Diana does not reveal a conscious understanding of what she saw; she’d rather talk about the impeccable style of their queen.
Her unabashed willingness to backhand compliment audience members can’t help but make one laugh out loud. The wry, cool composure when telling of a poor woman who threw herself out a window is taken for the shock she hoped it would be. But the chair in the corner, the bothersome Post, the stories themselves, all reveal a deep struggle with purpose. She wistfully dreams of the days she did not work. The fire in her eyes and energetic smile at the thought of a quick peanut butter sandwich and shot of whiskey for lunch at her desk – always lunch at one’s desk – is more telling, though, of her nature. “Contentment is for cows,” she says when remembering being asked about the self-made Coco Chanel; they don’t think about such things as contentment in Europe. The phone conversations throughout the day have one constant, a job offering that she consistently sidesteps and ignores. The uncompromising lady must and will be ruler of her own destiny.
Here, a crack in the surface, her admiration for a Hungarian princess, dignified to her very unfortunate end. It suddenly makes sense why the dress she died in is important to Diana. Now a prick to the heart, as she relates her mother’s bluntly stated and cruel opinion of her. We’re glad for her, when her husband disagrees.
Though full of opinions and utterly confident in her style, Diana also has no idea where her own kitchen is, and it’s this juxtaposition of a keen eye for detail and willing ignorance of the obvious that marks both the humor and depth of a play. It’s a wonder of Weaver’s skill and the proof of good writing by Mark Hampton and Mary Louise Wilson that we are held in rapt attention for close to an hour before intermission, then immediately caught back up again when we retake our seats. This performance has us laughing, catching our breath, at times completely hushed, shaking our heads, but never for a moment bored.
FULL GALLOP runs through February 11th. For more information visit spinningtreetheatre.com.