Kevin Lane Dearinger took his unparalleled Lexington theater scholarship to the stage Thursday night with In Respect to Mrs. Carter; the American Bernhardt, which doubled as an introduction to a new Lexington theater company.
New Works Inc. launched in the spring with a series of readings of new plays at the Downtown Arts Center, including Walter May's Gone Astray, which Actors Guild of Lexington will open in a full production next week.
Thursday's one-night-only performance of Mrs. Carter was not a full production, because actress Julieanne Pogue had the script on stage in what was billed as a "premiere reading" of the play.
But we kept forgetting that the script was there, thanks to Pogue's engaging performance and a stylized book that looked like a letter or journal that the turn-of-the-20th century actress might have carried around her bedroom.
Carter's story starts in Lexington, and although it isn't a story that many Lexingtonians know, it's logical territory for Dearinger, whose books include The Bard in the Bluegrass: Two Centuries of Shakespeare Performance in Lexington, Kentucky.
Carter was born Caroline Louise Dudley to a Lexington merchant family that soon moved to Dayton, Ohio.
She always had dreams of being an actress but married a cruel Chicago businessman, Leslie Carter, fascinated by his money and his home.
After a messy divorce, she embarked on that acting career, using her married name to spite her ex-husband, who was mortified at the thought of her being an actress.
For a time, it was a glorious career. She enjoyed success across the United States and Europe. But it came in the shadow of personal despair: Carter was separated from her son for decades, because her ex-husband's family retained custody of him. And then, just as things were going well, she made some decisions that proved disastrous for her career and personal life.
In the New Works production, there was always a razor blade on a pedestal at the corner of the stage, which Carter occasionally flirted with, making us wonder what this story would come to.
Carter's story is largely unknown, but it was engaging in Dearinger's telling. At a few junctures, Mrs. Carter briefly bogged down in philosophical soliloquies. For the most part, though, the play zipped along, packing a lot into 90 minutes.
Pogue was particularly adept at giving a little punch to Dearinger's witty monologue. She characterized her husband's sister and aunt as "bovine virgins," and she was gloriously condescending when she said "Ohio."
Pogue possesses the flair for the dramatic and melodramatic that suit Dearinger's script perfectly. And she has an ideal guide in director Bo List, who accented the big moments and guided us through some genuine pain, including Carter's horrible wedding night and a few late-show moments that brought the room to profound silence.
Speaking of encore performances, maybe the most striking thing about the night was this did not feel like a theater company's debut production. Artistic director Stephen Currens, a veteran actor and Broadway writer, knows how to present a show. And with a couple other New Works productions planned for the coming months, Lexington has something to look forward to.
IF YOU GO
New Works Inc.
In Respect to Mrs. Carter ... was a single-night event, but New Works has two other events scheduled this year.
Sept. 7: Forgotten Broadway; Great Songs Cut from Great Shows. A cabaret-style fundraiser. 7-10 p.m. $50 a person, $85 a couple. Tables of eight can be reserved.
Oct. 3-20: Saint Christopher is Not a Saint Anymore. World premiere of play by New Orleans-based writer Hunt Scarritt. 7:30 p.m. Thurs.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. $20.
Call (859) 225-0370 or go to Lexarts.tix.com.