Colonial Players of Annapolis’ production of Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina, first produced in 2014, offers a powerful look at a still-misunderstood subject. Directed by Mickey Lund, it features wonderful acting and directing, as well as inventive staging and lighting, and clever makeup and costumes. This is the area premiere and first community theater production of the show. With plenty of laughs and tears, it is an excellent way to finish the Colonial Players’ 69th season.
The play is set in 1962, at a resort in the Catskills where married men spend their weekends dressed in women’s clothing. Jim Gallagher plays George, the owner, and his female persona Valentina, with an eagerness verging on desperation. Facing bankruptcy and federal investigation, he is a passionate promoter of this community, “the sorority.” Laura Gayvert plays his wife Rita with a quiet strength. Gayvert and Gallagher have excellent chemistry together. While helping George become Valentina, she sits on his lap and they kiss tenderly. They dance together briefly, while Rita retells the charming story of how they met and fell in love, and how understanding she is towards the community. Cracks start to appear, though, as Rita kneels before George and pleads for him to tell her what he wants; he breaks down and explains, “I want to be normal.” Later, Rita shares her fear that George will become Valentina one day and never want to go back. It is a moving performance. The final scene shows George applying lipstick, the tension disappearing from his face.
Kevin Wallace gives great humor to Bessie, delivering sharp one-liners and quotes from Oscar Wilde. When Jonathan (Jason Vellon) shows her his pajamas, she bats them away. Normally light and witty, in a reflective moment, he remarks on his wife’s jealousy of Bessie. He gives his most emotional performance explaining the complicated nature of his cross-dressing: “It’s sick and ridiculous and it turns me on.”
Peter Wilkes gives enthusiasm to Terry. One of the oldest sorority members, he twirls around while remembering the trouble he would get into to be put into petticoats as punishment. Later, he passionately defends homosexuals, as they were the first to accept him as he explored cross-dressing. Mike Dunlop gives Amy (also known as the Judge) a stoic face with deep feelings. She strenuously opposes any publicity for the group, fearing the exposure. Confronted about his secret desires, the Judge erupts in a shocking moment of violence, then reveals private feelings to another member, with disastrous results.
Tom Wyatt plays Charlotte with passion. An activist, she works for a day when cross-dressing will be “as natural as smoking.” Speaking tenderly of the hope for community and understanding, the vehemence which she attacks homosexuals with is shocking, explaining how the cross-dressing cause will never advance with “queers” attached. She needles Amy, dropping hints about her private desires. It is a painful reminder of the pre-Stonewall prejudices.
Eric Lund gives passion and wit to Gloria as well. Sharp-witted, she confronts Valentina about the proposal to exclude homosexuals from the group, reminding her of her own flirtations with men in nightclubs. Her definition of sexuality is powerful: “there is no black or white, only infinite shades of gray.”
Jason Vellon plays Jonathan and Miranda with nervous excitement. A newcomer to public cross-dressing, Miranda’s first appearance is hilarious, the girls gleefully giving her a makeover. Later she eagerly dances with Rita and Amy, until a boundary gets crossed. The disappointment is clear on her face, and as she changes back into male clothes in silence she weeps. It is a remarkable performance.
Laurie Nolan and Eric Lund have done wonderful jobs as Set Co-Designers, working well with Properties Designer and Set Decorator Constance Robinson. An oval dining table sits in the middle of the stage, covered in a pink tablecloth. A record player stands to the left, with chairs and end tables. In the far back right is a full kitchen, with blue-green cabinets and an apron. On either side are small alcoves with nightstands and makeup kits, for the women to get ready. Behind the stage are two more stands with hanging mirrors.
The costumes, co-designed by Fran Marchand and Christina R. McAlpine, are terrific, as are the wigs, designed by Doug Dawson, and the makeup, designed by Darice Clewell. Together, they help reflect the time, and give form to “the women within.” Bessie begins the show in a long pink and white dress, with a pink headdress pinned by a shiny jewel. She later wears a floral shirt and long black skirt, with a small handbag and black wig. Valentina has on a form-fitting red silk evening gown and a blonde wig. Charlotte wears a blue and gold silk top and skirt, with matching hat. Gloria wears a green shirt, a white and green dress, green headscarf and red wig. Terry has on a purple floral dress and white wig. Amy is in a yellow dress and graying wig. Miranda wears a light pink dress and black wig. Rita wears a white sweater and red striped short pants.
Alex Brady does wonderful work as Lighting Designer, shining spotlights on Miranda and Valentina in their alcoves as they dress during dramatic moments. Colored lights flash during the dance party. Ben Cornwell as Sound Designer adds authenticity to the period with appropriate music.
Mickey Lund has done a remarkable job as Director. The actors work well together, navigating each other and the stage easily. Their comic timing is spot-on, and they hit all the right dramatic moments. Darice Clewell choreographs them in a fun dance to Please Mr. Postman that feels totally natural. Everything comes together for theater at its best, with the audience laughing and thinking. Be sure to catch it!
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.