By John Lyle Belden
It has become common practice when staging a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy to place it in another time and place than its original setting – such as America in the “Roaring” 1920s. However, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” is already very much at home in that era, which gives heft to the Simon Levy stage adaptation, presented by Belfry Theatre at Theater at the Fort in Lawrence.
Directed by Andrea Odle, this production presents people caught up in the roar of jazz, fancy cars, bootleg booze, and easy money, oblivious to the fact it was all too good to last. If a sip of gin made everyone an outlaw, what other sins were fair game? And what if even the slickest con man had honest feelings?
Our narrator and guide through this gilded world, Nick Carraway (Troy Bridges), visits his cousin Daisy (Rachel Bush) and her husband Tom Buchanan (Mike Lipphardt) at their swank Long Island home. She introduces Nick to tennis star Jordan Baker (Tessa Gibbons) with hopes of matchmaking.
Nick’s rental is next to the palatial estate of the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Samuel Smith), thrower of frequent wild parties. Upon meeting, Nick finds Gatsby is a fellow World War I veteran – a fact obscured by numerous rumors about his life and wealth – who had a past relationship with Daisy. The tangled web of characters includes Tom’s mistress Myrtle (Jessica Hawkins) and her unsuspecting husband George Wilson (Jackson Stollings), New York City socialites Chester (Zach Thompson) and Lucille McKee (Erin Chandler), and Gatsby’s business associate Meyer Wolfsheim (Nicholas Maudlin). Maudlin and Chandler also play a Policeman and witness to a tragic event in the second act.
Bridges ably plays Nick as one both fascinated and repulsed by the excesses around him. Smith presents Gatsby with a shrewd eye, likable even when you don’t quite trust him. Bush gives us a sweet young woman with everything but bravery. Gibbons, on the other hand, plays Jordan strong but addicted to the glamour of a life she feels she earned. Hawkins wins our sympathies as someone who didn’t get the breaks but keeps hoping to the point of delusion. Lipphardt manages an interesting but mildly detestable character living in a time and place where bigotry could get a person quite far in society.
The play presents a fascinating insight and commentary on a past era that resonates so well with our own, when the lifestyle of excess is still splashed upon our screens and reported with the news. Perhaps the 2020s have a roar of their own.
Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, at 8920 Otis Ave. For info and tickets, see thebelfrytheatre.com and artsforlawrence.org.