Arlington — Moss Hart is generally respected as one of the finest at constructing plays. Light Up the Sky, written in 1948, provides a backstage peek at the production team of a new Broadway-bound play on its opening day in Boston. This is Theatre Arlington’s third staging of Light Up the Sky. The inaugural performance was in 1973, and the second 14 years later in 1987. Director Sharon Veselic has cast this production well, guiding them deftly toward some nice ensemble work.
Light Up the Sky is a play in three acts with two intermissions that takes place in the Ritz-Carlton in Boston and covers events over a 24-hour period. The first act begins at 5:30 in the afternoon of the opening day. The second act takes us to 11:45 p.m., following the opening night performance. The third act begins at 3:30 a.m. of the next day as the morning papers arrive.
Some think this play is too dated. Is it? Well, the snapshots presented through the story are of an older time, but for the most part the story still works because certain elements of show business remain fundamentally unchanged. Hart profiles the unsure new playwright, the neurotic director, high-maintenance star, and unsophisticated producer. Shows today still hang perilously on the cliff dependent upon opening night and weekend results for their projected survival, particularly as the show workshops its way toward Broadway. Producers, directors and new playwrights are still antsy before opening. The characters are familiar and Hart, as one of the tribe, lovingly pokes fun at their ridiculousness.
Owen Turner (David Johnson), an established playwright, has dropped by the hotel to visit his friends and offer support on their opening day. He is greeted by ghost writer Miss Lowell (Sara “Ragsy” Ragsdale) who is busily working at the typewriter. Turner hangs around to see Carleton Fitzgerald (Kenneth Fudge), the play’s director.
Producer Sydney Black (Kirk A. Corley) has $300K invested in a new play written by newcomer and former truck driver Peter Sloan (Sterling Gafford). Half of Black’s investment has come from his wife, former professional figure skater Frances Black (Katie Weekley). Carleton is a nervous wreck but a believer in the script. Great leading lady Irene Livingston (Dena Dunn) is feeling the pressure often heaped on the star of a show. She is dutifully supported by her mostly silent husband, Tyler Rayburn (John Grissom). Irene’s mother, Stella Livingston (Barrie Alquire), is as acerbic as Frances is feisty. Determined to see the dress rehearsal, Stella bribed a scrubwoman, donned her work clothes, and gained access to the theater where she watched the dress rehearsal. Her observations drive the tension in the play.
Later Carleton, in relating bits of the rehearsal to the group, mentions the scrubwoman and begins describing the poor wretched figure. This scene is crafted as a gold nugget for Stella and Alquire grabs it and puts it in her pocket. Hilarious. Alquire is spot-on as Irene’s mother.
Irene is written as a broad character and it would be easy to overplay it. Dunn avoids that and finds the right tone. She looks and moves like a great ‘40s-era star and is funny without becoming a caricature.
Frances Black is sometimes played as a bimbo, but she is not interpreted that way here. Katie Weekley gives us a Frances who is likeable—feisty, bold, and cunning when she needs to be. Weekley’s accent is a little distracting because of its inconsistency, but not enough to pull us out of the story.
The third act begins with one of the best scenes in the production. The Shriners are staying at the hotel, and hear conversation from the hallway. (Cathy Pritchett is the voice of Orson.) We meet Shriner, William H. Gallegher (Christopher Adams), as an unexpected prospective theatrical investor. This is an impressive scene, not simple to accomplish in such a small space.
In a perfect world, the stage for this play could have the depth of the Music Hall at Fair Park, affording the designers the luxury of separating the areas a little more. But most theaters do not have that much playing area so the set design for this play has to be tightly configured, yet smart enough to allow for all of the movement, with near-constant entrances and exits required. This scene could so easily have imploded. It doesn’t, due in part to the actors and the staging, but it also to the credit of Tony Curtis’ set design. It is accurate to the period, has the elements required, is functional, as well as aesthetically pleasing.
Ryan Matthieu Smith’s costumes are gorgeous, especially the purple dress worn by Stella. The jewelry selected for Frances supported her character perfectly, filling in spaces better than words.
There will be another area production of this play later in the spring, but the Theatre Arlington production is onstage now and should not be missed.