The Austin Chronicle


Local arts reviews

January 17, 2003, Arts

Shame the Devil: Profile in Courage

Dougherty Arts Center, through Jan. 18

Running Time: 50 min

It takes a certain kind of courage to stand on a stage and speak as someone else. It takes a completely different kind to stand on principle and speak up for someone else. Fanny Kemble possessed both kinds, as we learn with admiration and delight in the Pollyanna Theatre Company's production of Shame the Devil. This solo play allows us to join the celebrated 19th-century actress in her parlor as she whiles away the time between the end of a performance -- her first in years -- and the early-morning arrival of the daily papers with their verdicts from the critics. She shares the origin of her stage career, her reason for crossing "the big ditch" from her native England to the U.S., the marriage that led to her absence from the stage, and the controversy that erupted from it. This last item consumes the majority of the hour and offers the evidence of Ms. Kemble's courage, as she confronts firsthand the evils of slavery on her husband's Georgia plantations. She relates her shocking encounters with inhuman living conditions, grueling work, brutal punishments, and her personal attempts to relieve the burdens of people confined in shacks and shackles -- attempts that lead to conflict with her husband and her departure from Georgia. Ann Ludlam's script, which draws heavily from the journal Kemble kept of her time on the plantation, supplies authenticity, but what provides the authority here is the actress playing the actress, Bernadette Nason. Wearing a sumptuous hoop-skirted red dress (the work of designer Sylvia Tate), Nason takes the stage as if it were her home. She glides about, scooping up photographs to relate gentle anecdotes of family; sinks to the floor to demonstrate her first shot at Shakespeare (a comically inept Juliet); storms through recollections of the cruelties of slave life; and rails at her former husband, thrusting a pamphlet he wrote about her into the wastebasket. There is fire in Nason's Kemble; in that crimson dress, she's a living flame. Her blazing passion and outrage makes the play's portrait of slavery personal and awakens our own sense of responsibility to face the injustices we see. Kemble is a rich role, drawing on a range of feelings requiring resolve and charm, and Nason relishes it, with director Judy Matetzschk bringing out the best in this gifted performer. Together, they provide an audience with a rare woman and a profile in courage.

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