Leopard Woman is the cat's meow

Local playwright pens smart, intense political drama

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Doug Deuchler

Leopard Woman, the new play by Oak Parker David Gilbert currently being presented by Open Door Repertory Company, is an exciting portrait of a strong, complicated woman. Charlotte Hackett is a fictional up-and-coming Hollywood actress whose blossoming career gets trashed by the McCarthy "witch hunt" of the Cold War 1950s. The title refers to her leading role in one of those campy B-movies like Wasp Woman and Cat Women of the Moon.

We've had other works that portray this era, one of the most notorious and paranoid periods in modern American history. Many blacklisted actors, directors and screenwriters were unable to work in film or TV for decades. Woody Allen's The Front showed how careers were ruthlessly destroyed. But other than The Way We Were, little attention has been paid to the women who were also hounded for their supposed "un-American activities." This new work shows a tough but flawed female caught up in the conflicts of her times, yet Gilbert's drama never slips into predictable melodrama.

There is no shortage of fresh scripts, of course. Budget constraints often nudge theater companies to showcase "premiere" works like this one, thus avoiding the pricey royalties of big ticket hit shows. But never have I seen a new work so polished and well developed. There are big scenes?#34;riots and trials?#34;as well as quiet, gripping, intimate moments. Gilbert has a gift for realistic dialogue. The politics intensify yet never become preachy or strident.

The play is very cinematic, sprawling over five decades with a variety of characters dropping in and out of Charlotte's life. Scenes overlap, which is easy to achieve with the fluidity of filmmaking. Yet director Mary Pat Sieck keeps the production flowing smoothly.

Partially paralyzed, 70-something has-been movie actress Charlotte is recovering from a stroke in the home of her daughter (Megan Diemer), a bitter, recovering drug addict. Charlotte's paunchy grandson
(Brian Goodman), who doesn't work or go to school, lives there too. He seems to spend most of his time hanging out in shorts and flip-flops with a bottle of beer in his hand. Yet he's happily astonished after he sees a screening of his once radical grandmother's old film, Leopard Woman. "You aren't just some old lady who couldn't save the world," he tells her. "You were hot!"

Amy Rising is tough and touching in the haunting title role, as an actress whose career ended because she refused to "crawl." Rising is especially effective in the quiet moments where Charlotte struggles with love, aging and family conflict. While others are being interrogated in court, "off camera" Rising remains fully in character, fidgeting with her gloves and handbag, bearing a pained yet defiant look.

The playwright weaves so many actual details of the period into his script that the plot and characters feel credible and real. Charlotte, for instance, who'd scored with a few hard-boiled "film noir" hits, was being considered for the role of Stella Kowalski in the 1951 motion picture A Streetcar Named Desire until her politics dashed her chances. She's not a true "red" or revolutionary but she refuses to sign the loyalty oath. This was a very big deal at the time. (Over a decade later in the mid '60s when I was a short-order cook in my college student union, we were still required to take a loyalty oath to receive our $1.25 an hour wages.)

Leopard Woman is not all political diatribe. There's an intense series of family conflicts, too. Charlotte also has romantic interludes with both a Cuban horn player (Max Da Silva) and a blacklisted screenwriter who flees the country (Brian Rabinowitz).

The 14 performers play twice that number of characters, which mostly works fine, but is disorienting at times. Rising effortlessly slips back and forth from the '50s to the '90s with just her posture and body language to indicate whether she's 25 or 75. But with so many other cast members portraying multiple roles, it takes full concentration to keep everyone sorted out.

Scott Dunnell plays a grinning stoolpigeon. Kim Hoag is chilling as one of Charlotte's relentless inquisitors, accusing her of an "unseemly, unpatriotic display." Diane Wawrzyniak does well with three roles, especially a French film industry wife who's learned to look the other way. Noah Sullivan is a pompous studio head who appeases the red-baiting watch dogs who prowl the industry. Paul Packer plays several slimy roles, including a fake radical who infiltrates the anti-war movement. Other strong cast members are Wes Boyer, Bruce Bradford, Julia Copper and Allen Payne.

The episodic second act is less focused yet is perhaps more emotionally biting. We're in the 1960s now, that time of widespread protest and civil disobedience, and Charlotte's out-of-control teenage daughter rebels against her mother, no longer a cutting edge radical.

The smart script assumes the audience is familiar with this time frame and its conflicts. We're immediately tossed into the vortex of the Red Scare. For audience members unfamiliar with this era, perhaps too many names no longer household words are being batted around, like Dalton Trumbo, Adolphe Menjou, Robert Taylor, Luis Brunel, Francois Truffaut and Meyer Lansky. Playwright Gilbert creates a true evocation of the period, yet I fear younger audience members may drown in all the remote references.

The two-act play has one intermission and lasts about two-and-a-half hours. I recommend seeing this show not just because it's an intense, well-performed drama. But I'm certain it will be great fun down the road to say we remember watching Leopard Woman as it was born on a grammar school stage in our midst.

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