In 1978, obscure playwright Richard C. Wesley was lucky enough to see one of his three unremarkable plays produced on Broadway. "The Mighty Gents" closed after a week, but not before making Morgan Freeman a star as he brought this remarkable actor to the attention of theatergoers.
However, Freeman also came to the attention of filmmakers, and it wasn't until 1987 that this gifted actor came back to the stage to play the complex character of Hoke in "Driving Miss Daisy." Then off he went again to the movies. But this season he's back, giving another expectedly excellent performance in Clifford Odets' drama, "The Country Girl."
Freeman is one of those amazing crossover actors who succeeds in both film and on stage, and in "The Country Girl," his performance as Frank Elgin is so natural, he seeps into the crevices of your sympathies as he reveals his story -- then sends you reeling towards a profound sadness when you realize you've been betrayed.
Frank Elgin, you see, is a drunk who betrays the trust of most people around him, not just the audience's. And like most drunks, he's a liar, better than most because he's also a great actor. Or was -- currently he's persona non grata in the theater after disappointing too many producers, directors and co-stars. But from the first time this man opens his mouth, his gentle manner, self-effacing humor, and vulnerability pull you in.
Shoring him up is Georgie, his tough and straight-talking wife who knows what it's like to live with a drunk. If "Gypsy"'s Mama Rose is the number one stage mother of all time. then Georgie is the quintessential stage wife. Played with tenacity, humility, and a deep understanding of her husband's affliction, Frances McDormand is the woman behind the man in this Mike Nichols' revival.
The play opens in the backstage of a theater where producer Phil Cook and director Bernie Dodd are obsessing over the fact that they haven't yet found a leading man for their play which is about to open in Boston for out-of-town tryouts, and then head to Broadway. Bernie, who knows Frank's stage work, wants Cook to give the down-and-out actor a shot at the role, but hiring a drunk is box office suicide. Bernie, however, prevails.
Frank is a bit taken aback that he's offered the role, and while he struggles with his lines, his wife, and his "cough syrup," Bernie, played handsomely by Peter Gallagher in more ways than one, coaches the insecure actor to turn in the most brilliant performance of his career.
Though this is, on the surface, a fascinating story about the exigencies of putting on a play, Odets, known for his multi-layered plots, never leaves it there. Always looking at the bigger story, he also addresses the problems of co-dependency and triangular relationships as played out by two strong people who vie for influence over the weak one: Bernie and Frank, Georgie and Frank, Bernie and Georgie.
Georgie is perceived by Bernie as holding Frank back from his destiny, but maybe Georgie should get the credit for enabling Frank to function at all. Bernie, on the other hand, has the weight of a new show on his shoulders and fights for Frank against all odds, but maybe heï¿½s really just fighting for his own shot at being a hero. And Frank hangs on to both for dear life, wrestling with who should get his first allegiance.
Frances McDormand is perfectly cast as Georgie. Moving up and down the emotional escalator with ease, McDormandï¿½s performance is formidable. From reticent, shy country girl to seductive city slicker, Georgieï¿½s development as a woman and stage wife is something to behold.
Peter Gallagher is daunting as Bernie, and Chip Zien portrays producer Cook with the right dash of bottom line anxiety. Bottom line here is that "The Country Girl" is a big city success.
What the press had to say.....
"A single breath of suspense, as faint as a half-stifled sigh, occasionally stirs the inert revival."
New York Times
"A lackluster revival." & "The story poses two big questions - Will Frank revive his career? and Will Georgie stay with him? By the time the curtain falls, you've already stopped caring."
New York Daily News
"It is crisply and, so far as humanly possible, unsentimentally directed by Mike Nichols, who knows how to let his actors breathe, react and interact, and has a handsomely picked trio of stars in Morgan Freeman, Frances McDormand and Peter Gallagher." & "These three are all heart-rendingly credible - it's among the finest acting of the season."
New York Post
"Whether others should choose to attend this tepid backstage drama over a hot new play like "August: Osage County" really depends on their affection for its stars. "
"Leaves most of today's Broadway fare trailing by a country mile."
"The evening is a two-act snooze."
The Journal News
"A grim physical drabness infects the production."
"The Country Girl" remains surprisingly durable thanks in part to its flavorful evocation of the theater milieu, but chiefly to its trio of meaty lead roles, all colored by compelling ambiguities and craggy edges." & "It's the performances and not the production that are key to elevating "The Country Girl" above its essence of quality soap, and on that count, Nichols and his cast deliver."