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Four decades on, ‘Vanities’ has new meaning

Lawrence Toppman
Lawrence Toppman is a theater critic and culture writer with The Charlotte Observer.

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  • ‘Vanities’

    Jack Heifner’s play about three former cheerleaders holds up differently in a version by Stephen Seay Productions.

    WHEN: Through Aug. 25 at 7:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays.

    WHERE: UpStage, 3306 N. Davidson St.

    RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes.

    TICKETS: $13.

    DETAILS: or

How revolutionary Jack Heifner’s “Vanities” seemed when it opened off-Broadway in 1976! It tracked U.S. history from the seemingly carefree days just before JFK’s assassination up to the beginnings of feminism, asked whether traditional values could still satisfy modern women and left us wondering where these three former cheerleaders (let alone our country) were headed.

I saw it then, and it knocked me down at 22. Thirty-seven years later, it has a different effect: There’s a poignancy to knowing that Joanne’s sons may grow up to fight in the Middle East 20 years later and that the dissatisfied Mary and Kathy probably have decades ahead of them to become more bitter and self-destructive.

Stephen Seay Productions has revived the play at UpStage in NoDa, a perfect place for the intimate piece. The duo of Phoenixsong Stellamaris and Darlene Parker performs live before each of the three acts, with repeated choruses of “What Do Pretty Girls Do?,” a haunting 1998 number by Kirsty MacColl.

Evolution in three acts

We meet the three characters on Nov. 22, 1963, as they plan a pep rally. These high school seniors are so naïve that, when they hear the president was shot, they think it’s the student council president. (“I just saw him in algebra!”)

Their still-latent personalities begin to emerge: Kathy (Avalon Rose) organizes and plans; Mary (Leslie Ann Giles) fidgets under the status quo; Joanne (Rachael Houdek) exaggerates her emotions and conforms to every norm.

Those traits become clearer in Act 2, set during their last semester as college sorority sisters, and Act 3, set at a garden party in Kathy’s New York apartment. I used to think the third act was ironic: We were supposed to laugh at Joanne, who completely suppresses her individuality (if she ever had any) to bask in suburban wifedom and motherhood, rather then explore new ideas.

Now I wonder whether her unquestioning, noisy happiness doesn’t suit her: Her destiny is neither higher nor lower than her friends’, and she’s better suited to the life she has chosen than they are to wealth and supposed sophistication.

Thriving at UpStage

Seay has steered his company to various venues around Charlotte, but the director-producer seems to be enjoying a steady relationship with UpStage: He’ll be back with “The Complete History of America (Abridged)” in late December.

Seay uses the space well, moving the actresses around a tiny modular set in groups that often signal temporary alliances: Mary and Kathy frequently sit together, opposite Joanne.

Giles fully inhabits the restless, anxious Mary. When Rose picks up the pace of her performance, she’ll fully embody the Kathy whose devotion to plans and rules hides emptiness inside. Houdek understands Joanne, who finds joy in never thinking for herself, yet her performance in such a small space can be overwhelming. (Joanne is an outsized character, but still …)

The show seems a bit like Tarradiddle Players on holiday: Seay and Giles work with that touring arm of Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, and Parker (who designed costumes for “Vanities”) did so once. Maybe Seay’s performances for kids have made him more sensitive toward the childlike cheerleaders; we laugh at their naïveté, but Seay isn’t mocking them.

Perhaps that’s what seemed different to me, nearly four decades later: It’s now possible to respond to these women with sadness, rather than sarcasm. Or maybe that’s what Jack Heifner intended all along, and I’ve just figured it out.

Toppman: 704-358-5232
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