Review: Miss Lulu Bett by Different Stages
by Michael Meigs
Norman Blumenstaadt’s Different Stages is the only company in Austin where you can be sure of seeing new old plays. Or, to put it differently, to see plays that are new to you though they’re significant in the history of the theatre arts of the United States.
Norman has included contemporary works in the company’s seasons, certainly, and he constructs all of the DIffStages seasons with care. No fluff here; he has the keen eye of a curator. He’s a canny casting director as well, one who reaches out to actors both familiar and new to Austin audiences.
Miss Lulu Bett by Zona Gale succeeded commercially and won the 1920 Pulitzer prize for drama, the first awarded to a woman. Now more than a century old, this well-constructed three-act domestic drama staged in a single box set has aged remarkably well.
The earliest audiences probably understood it as a subtly scathing satire of the unthinkingly arrogant, self-satisfied provincial rube who dominates wife, children, and spinster sister-in-law Lulu. Surely it was accepted by urban audiences as a comedy of provincial small-town life. Ian King’s adamant and entirely un-ironic delivery of the role of Dwight Herbert Deacon is entirely consonant with that interpretation.
We in a contemporary audience can appreciate that mockery, but Bethany Harbaugh in the title role is the reason to see this play. Unmarried and now thirty-four years old, Miss Lulu Bett has patiently served the Deacon family for years without complaint. Hers is a coming-of-age story, an arc over three acts that does not quite achieve feminist consciousness raising but resounds with us as an example of the insidious, stifling effects of traditional gender roles.
Harbaugh’s performance is beautifully restrained. She establishes Lulu as calmly devoted to her unpaid service to the family of her sister and brother-in-law. When Dwight's long-absent brother Ninan lands unexpectedly in the household, Lulu responds simply to his chattery, flattery ways. Misled by Dwight into believing that a parlor-game dramatization has bound her in marriage to this brother the adventurer, she yields without protest to that interpretation and accepts Ninian as her husband. (You can see where this is going, right?) Bryan Headrick as the talkative visitor may remind you of Willy Loman’s imagined brother Ben in Death of a Salesman, but without the ghostly gravitas. Ninian is a glib lesser soul, not able entirely to convince anyone he’s not fabricating.
Abandoned by the third act, Lulu returns and must decide how to deal with small-town scandal and the family’s insistence that she sink once again into subservience. Lulu’s deepest desire is to determine whether her husband, perhaps a bigamist, really did love her for her own qualities. Harbaugh’s tranquil focus overrides the many demands made upon her.
The trope, of course, is the ancient and inelegantly titled one of “the worm turns.” By measuring that turn in minute, carefully controlled degrees, director Blumensaat and lead actor Harbaugh render Lulu’s awakening and eventual decision entirely believable.
Other female characters offered as foils to Lulu aren’t written with the same finesse. Suzanne Balling does her assigned duty as blowhard Dwight’s devoted, unthinking wife, serving the character as she must; Lucky Cantu is the teenage adolescent infatuated with the boy next door; Tatum Dishman plays petulant but obedient younger daughter Monona, in whom rebellion is brewing; and Katherine Schroeder as the aged, factual, disabused and defanged matriarch “Mother” Bett provides comic commentary that would deflate anyone with a thinner skin than her pompous son-in-law. Beau Paul is Mr. Cornish, the shambling, shy admirer of Lulu, pained to see her spirited away—a character as inept as his Creon was forceful in Filigree Theatre’s recent Antigone.
The setting and concept of Miss Lulu Bett are simple, but this vigorous production never lags; in fact, the three acts fly by. The cast delivers Gale’s sharp dialogue speedily and well, so that even stereotypical characters win our interest and sympathy.
Surely there are hundreds of “well-made” plays staged around that long-ago turn of the century that are not worth revisiting. Our guide and curator Mr. Blumensaat has preserved and presented this one to us, a bouquet in three acts. Thanks for that!
November 17 - December 09, 2023
2307 Manor Road
Austin, TX, 78722
November 17 - December 9, 2023
The Vortex, Manor Road, Austin
Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 6 p.m. No performances on Thanksgiving Thursday November 23.
Tickets are: $15, $27 $37 on Thursday through Sunday.
For tickets and information call 512-478-5282