Vera Stark is, like so many actresses who start out hungry and wind up legendary, alone on her own stage. She works alongside other actors only because she needs someone to talk to, but none -- in her estimation, and in ours -- are her equals.
Vera is a fictional character, drawn from life by playwright Lynn Nottage. Nicole Belit, the woman who plays her in the iTheatre Collaborative production of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark that opened on Friday night at the Herberger, is very real. The two women share this: They are -- thanks to Belit's enchanting performance -- alone onstage.
In Act One, Vera's a comely, determined movie extra who dreams of a stardom not typically afforded to black performers in 1930s Tinseltown. She's housemaid to Gloria Mitchell (Brenda Jean Foley), an under-talented, overly dramatic movie star referred to as "America's Little Sweetie Pie" and meant to recall silent film actress Mary Pickford. Vera scores an audition with the director of Belle of New Orleans, in which Gloria is set to star. Playing Gloria's maid in the picture, Vera becomes a star.
When she returns to us in Act Two, it's 40 years later, and we're reminded of what stardom once brought to black women of Hollywood's golden age. Vera, like real-life stars Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers, and Juanita Moore, is now an actress known for having played mammies and maids in movies starring famous white women. A little tipsy and a little blowsy, she's the guest on a cheesy talk show circa 1973. In a cheap gown, she sneers impatiently at both the audience and her host, and her haughty faux grandeur is both comical and heartbreaking. Her performance, and Belit's, is a personification of the story that Nottage is telling.
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Director Charles St. Clair finds the balance between Nottage's dark comedy and darker commentary on race relations in Hollywood and beyond, moving as it should between reality and caricature. (Next to Belit's star turn, his animated screen-projections between acts are the best thing about this production.) But Vera Stark, less antic than Nottage's earlier Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine, isn't intended as a one-woman show. It becomes one, in this production, in part because its supporting cast is no match for their leading lady.
Eyes pooling with tears, nostrils flaring, and with posture that suggests she's swallowed a yardstick, Belit is a dazzling Vera Stark. Her second act performance provides wider range and the opportunity to play drunkenness, anger, and an aged actress's scenery-chewing. But it's the Vera of Act One who impresses: wildly romantic, full of energy and singleness of purpose as she aspires to a grander existence. Both versions of Vera are stunners, and are reason enough to see this otherwise uneven production.
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark continues through September 6 at the Herberger Theater Center's Kax Stage, 222 East Monroe Street. Call 602-254-7399 or visit www.itheatreaz.org.