By Joe Eriole
“If it wasn’t for the mist…”
In a script replete with references drawn from the best known work of one of America’s greatest writers, Austin Carrothers extracts much from Gatsby’s simple observation that our vision of the the good old days, our daydreams about what might have been, and might still be, is often obscured by “a mist.”
Carrothers plays the iconic Gatsby in New Deal Creative Arts Center’s production. The line appeals to him as a distillation of a fatal flaw nearly all the characters in the drama share: they long for a life that is an illusion. ‘If it wasn’t for the mist’ …we could see things as we hoped they would be. We excuse and even admire his behavior because it’s all for love. But all the while he’s driven by an illusion.” And everyone around him buys in – including us.
But the tragic tale of Gatsby reminds us that the mist is more real than the dreams it obscures.
New Deal continues to choose dramatic vehicles which make powerful observations about the dangers inherent in the facades and conventions of the societies we invent for ourselves. They now follow their fall production of The Crucible with a one weekend run of The Great Gatsby, this Friday through Sunday only.
Director Teresa Gasparini, who is also the Executive Director of New Deal and chose the show, “is inspired by Gatsby’s unyielding spirit.” But, like readers of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 masterpiece for a century, she notes that the guilty appeal of the piece may lie in “the intrigue of greed, excess, carelessness, and passion” of the era in which it is set.
Gatsby, after all, is not the only tragic figure in the story. One could argue that the only character who knows exactly who he is, and who gets exactly what he wants, is the least appealing character in the play, the lecherous Tom Buchanan. Abusive husband of the heroine Daisy. Steven Bendler, who plays Buchanan in this production, posits that “Tom pursues women primarily as a competition with other men.” He uses it to let the men around him know that they are beneath him. When Gatsby shows up, a ghost who lays claim to a fairy tale life with Tom’s wife, “Gatsby becomes Tom’s white whale.” But when the dust settles on the story, Daisy remains by Tom’s side, and while all the other character’s lives are deeply effected by the “Gatsby episode,” the audience has the distinct sense that Tom’s life is just as he’d like it.
The other characters, like Gatsby, are all seeking participation in a romantic illusion of what life might be.
Daisy, the other half of the long lost love affair Gatsby hopes to rekindle, has traded in her daydreams for certain security, and even excesses, that a life with Tom, though loveless, can ensure. When Gatsby appears, actor Jess Lyke thinks life with him is the only alternate life she’d consider. “As a woman of her times, even though she’s vibrant and smart, she can’t be alone.” But her tragedy is that for all Daisy’s vitality, it’s not just a matter of leaving Tom for “just any bloke. It’s all focused on Gatsby.” When Gatsby’s dead, Daisy’s dream of a life without Tom is forever shattered.
Is that kind of romantic, all or nothing approach, defensible? Can Gatsby be so magnetic that Daisy should look past his flaws, the risks inherent in committing to him and leaving behind the security of Tom’s Yale-bred lifestyle? Lykes makes the insightful observation that audiences and readers have been enveloped in Gatsby’s charms all along, too. “Why is it,” she asks, that when anyone thinks of the Gatsby story, they barely remember that Gatsby dies?” You don’t take away from the story the fact that, actually, Tom wins, she muses. The dream of the old flame returning to sweep everyone off their feet, and throw lavish parties in beautiful clothes, under the stars in beautiful homes, is a powerful dream for all of us, she says. “Everything is Gatsby.”
Tom’s ill-fated “girl,” Myrtle, is played by Caitlin Connelly, who acknowledges that the already married Myrtle is an opportunist, by necessity, but she’s not a caricature. Her maneuverings express a survival instinct. “I think,” Connelly says, “that when she married George, she loved him and it was probably a step up from wherever she came from. A good guy, he makes a living.” And when she is pursued by Tom, “she sees the same opportunity for a better life.” The illusion she chases is one in which Tom leaves Daisy and chooses her. She never gets chance to force the question.
Among the women in the story, only Jordan Baker, played by Louisa Vilardi, has some autonomy. Her life as a professional golfer puts her in a position to lean into the allure of the jazz age without the pressure of needing a man. Vilardi takes inspiration from Jordan’s agency, noting that she can choose to pursue narrator Nick Carraway, for the sheer enjoyment of the moment. “She’s not a woman who has to get married,” Vilardi points out. Her favorite line, which encapsulates the deep contradictions of the age, is when Jordan tells Nick “she hates careless people,” noting that she has surrounded herself with nothing but careless people. The point, it seems, is that we all tolerate intolerable people if the rewards are appealing enough.
The Carraway character, played by Chris Backofen, is really called upon to play two parts. One is the cynical, older Nick, who tells us the Gatsby story with the benefit of hindsight, and knows all along that the excesses of all the players will be tragic and deadly. The other is the Nick who’s interning at a finance firm and has just arrived from the mid-west to see how he might make his way in the glamorous Hamptons. He shares Gatsby’s mid-west pedigree and Tom’s Yale pedigree. And, Backofen thinks, he separates himself from both. Unlike Gatsby, “I think he always knew this crowd was dangerous. “He and Gatsby came from the same place, but unlike Gatsby, Nick doesn’t quite get swallowed up by the glitz and glam of the lifestyle.” Which may explain why Nick survives it.
The costumes in this production are stunning, and everyone in the cast wears them well. The music is generally contemporary but done in roaring 20’s style, creating an intriguing auditory experience to go along with a gorgeous visual take.
Audiences will enjoy this well-acted portrayal of one of the 20th century’s seminal stories. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased online (newdeal-gatsby.eventbrite.com) or at the door. Cunneen-Hackett Arts Center is located at 12 Vassar Street, Poughkeepsie.