Running time: 1 hr, 50 min
I inherited two small pottery plates, designed, cooked, and glazed by my Grandma MaryAnne. These plates hang on my wall; I dare not eat from them. While they are, admittedly, mediocre pieces, nothing remotely near Sotheby's material, they were created by her hands, meticulously painted, and sweetly loved. They are utterly unique. The sentimental attachment to these plates has grown in me; they are the last living whispers of a woman I hardly knew. What can these objects teach me?
This is the overarching question in Different Stages' production of The Misses Overbeck. The story concerns five sisters in the early 1900s, three of whom specialize in pottery, one of whom keeps the group nourished, and another who initiates the radical idea of their going into business for themselves. Running concurrently with their story is the tale of another woman in the present day, an artist and mother of two adult children who is offered the job of piecing together a broken clay vase bearing the OBK mark. Fundamentally, this show is about women trying to make a living in a society structured to pen them into few occupational choices: mainly domesticity, motherhood, and wifely "duties." From 1911 until their deaths, the Overbeck artists were betrothed to the pottery wheel, the paintbrush, the clay earth, and their unflinching independence.
Prolific Austin director Norman Blumensaadt and Texas playwright Tom White have resurrected and tightened White's 1992 play, which combines realism in style with an unconventional form and structure, much as the Overbecks themselves do. The production utilizes the practical power of visual examples with slide projections of Overbeck pieces and a live camera feed used as a storytelling device. Characters meet and greet across shattered time, staged by Blumensaadt with sophistication and grace.
As narrator Norma, Jennifer Underwood glues together both the pieces of the vase and the historical puzzle with strength and confidence. Paula Gilbert, as the masterful craftswoman Elizabeth Overbeck, is lively and focused; Christina Frankenfield, the primary illustrator in the clan, is just as particular. The actresses create a nice sense of camaraderie among the sisters but falter in committing fully to their roles, with sometimes choppy, mechanical line delivery. They brighten and relax when the dialogue turns to the subject of art, distinguishing their characters as perennial lovers of nature, drawing inspiration from the smallest of things, eyes glittering with ideas. The contemporary vase owner, the power-suited lawyer Sarah, is aptly portrayed by Jessica Medina, but her optimistic fiancé, Mark, is awkwardly executed by Keith Yawn, causing unfortunate drops in rhythm during his scenes. The imbalance of abilities within the cast weakens the play's impact, but thankfully it does not cloud the pleasantries of the story.
As the entire cast gathers around the television to watch Norma's low-budget documentary about the sisters' broken vase, the show demonstrates the Overbeck sentiment that they "enjoy their lives because they enjoy their work." From the provincial to the modern, this simple axiom applies across time and is refreshing to remember. Those plates from my grandmother remind me to wonder about the past, to dream about who she was, and to marvel at the power of hands, heart, and mind to make ideas into form. The Misses Overbeck's historical/contemporary drama generates an affectionate quality that personalizes the particular objects surrounding all of us.
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