“A Conversation with Edith Head” at NC Stage

Photo courtesy of NC Stage
Photo courtesy of NC Stage

Review by Jeff Douglas Messer

The Golden Age of Hollywood is alive and well at North Carolina Stage Company. All the glamor and some bits of the juicy gossip come to life in an intimate and fun evening, all wrapped in the special event: A Conversation with Edith Head starring Susan Claassen, artistic director of Tuscon, Arizona’s Invisible Theatre. The show comes with world-wide acclaim, and its star, who is also the co-author (with Paddy Calistro, Edith Head authority and author of the posthumous autobiography Edith Head’s Hollywood.)

The show has traveled the country and the world, having played coast to coast in more than 250 performances, and selling out its run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2007. The show was first staged in 2002. It runs in Asheville through Sunday, June 8.

For the uninitiated, Edith Head was an eight-time Oscar winner for costume design (she worked on over 1,100 films over her long career), self-styled fashion maven of the 20th century, and one of the most striking Hollywood icons of all time (a clever homage to her appears in the Pixar film, The Incredibles).Conversation is set in 1981, just prior to Head’s death. She had recently completed of work on her final film, the Steve Martin comedy, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.

Edith regales the audience with tales of some of the biggest names to ever grace the silver screen — all accompanied by the unique brand of wit and honesty for whichHead was notorious. She dishes tasty scoops on the likes of Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck (“long waist, low derriere”), Grace Kelly, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder (“a real S.O.B., but in a good way”), Cecil B. DeMille (“always had it his way”), Paul Newman and Robert Redford, (getting them dressed and undressed for The Sting) and Elizabeth Taylor (“a dear friend, and the most beautiful woman”).

The lobby and the stage are filled with photographs, designs and memorabilia from Head’s nearly six decade-spanning career. There are also two dress replicas on display, once worn by Bette Davis and Elizabeth Taylor; there’s also a pair of Oscar statues lurking about on set, which the actress caresses from time to time.

It is hard to put such a long and colorful career into 90 minutes, but Claassen manages it, and with flourish. It’s a one woman show as well as an interactive journey back in time. Catori Swann of NC Stage serves as the hots of the evening, helping guide things along. Random audience members are asked to submit questions, which Miss Head takes time out to answer at points during the evening. She also offers wardrobe advice for her guests in sly and cutting critiques.

Claassen is Edith Head, and the performance is a flawless conversation filled with laughter, pathos, tangents, clever asides, and a peek or two behind the curtains.

When Conversation ends, Claassen, still in character, moves to the lobby to meet and greet folks, and continue to offer up her brand of advise and wisdom.  She takes photos with audience members and adorns those she deems worthy with a sticker the reads, “Edith Head Approved.”

A Conversation with Edith Head runs through Sunday, June 8, at N.C. Stage Co. Wednesdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. $14-$30. Student tickets $10. ncstage.org

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