You may not have heard of Diana Vreeland before you see Asheville Community Theatre’s current production of “Full Gallop,” but afterwards, you will never forget her. This one-woman show explores the rise and fall of the fashion visionary Vreeland from her birth in Paris, her youthful wife days in London, to her pivotal fashion editing career in New York, told with ample hilarity and aplomb.
Like many one person shows, the premise is rather flimsy and perfunctory, but serviceable. It is 1971, and a 70-ish Vreeland has just returned to her New York City apartment after four months abroad, during which she attempted to recover from the abrupt firing from her position as the editor in chief of Vogue magazine. Preparations are underway for a dinner party, and Vreeland talks on the intercom with her French maid, on the phone with various business contacts and friends, and straight to the audience. The plot tension relies on the trajectory of Vreeland away from the embarrassment of her termination and toward whatever is next for a woman whose era has been declared by the New York Post to be “over.” However, the bulk of the show, and its main feature, is Vreeland entertaining the audience with her oversized personality, amazing stories, and delightful eccentricities.
Director Jerry Crouch has guided Joan Atwood in the role of Vreeland to embrace all things over the top, with great success. Atwood’s appearance goes beyond mere costuming and styling to look the part (the creator of her shellacked black bob should be commended) as she physically inhabits the role to the point of practically dancing through the play, appropriate for the dance-trained Vreeland. Atwood’s voice and physicality are so elegant, colorful and grandiose, she manages to keep the audience’s attention for the almost two hours she is onstage and never lags in energy or focus. Atwood flits about the stage, which is dressed to represent Vreeland’s home decorated to represent “a garden in hell,” delivering such lines as “Everyone needs a splash of bad taste” in such a way that you immediately want to go out and buy something horrid for your living room to prove you can be fun, too.
The script provides only a precious few moments of vulnerability and dramatic contrast for Atwood to explore the inner side of Vreeland, which she does with great gentleness, particularly when talking about her husband’s death. But the best part of Vreeland is her ability to relish life and the things she loves, and Atwood depicts Vreeland’s delight with a sweet purity that is touching.
Introverts should be warned that the seating in 35Below has been rearranged into café tables, ensuring that singles and couples will be sat with strangers. Though this choice contributes to the casual conversational feel of the show, the sightlines are not as clear as the standard seating arrangement. The lack of variation in energetic and emotional levels can be forgiven as the show is written in such a way to make it feel as if you are at the home of someone both wonderful and overwhelming, and there is not much room for subtlety. However, one suspects that’s exactly how Vreeland would want it. “Full Gallop” runs for one final weekend in Asheville Community Theatre’s 35Below.
Asheville Community Theatre’s 35below presents: Full Gallop. By Mark Hampton and Mary Louise Wilson. Through April 30, Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. Starring Joan Atwood, directed by Jerry Crouch. All seats are $15. Visit http://www.ashevilletheatre.org for more information.