As America's High Priestess of fashion, Diana Vreeland enthralled the nation. From 1936 to 1971, the great tastemaker of the 20th century ruled the pages of Harper's Bazaar and then Vogue. Exotic, charismatic and brilliant, the handsome, hook-nosed woman knew how to dress up almost anything. She also made some wonderfully odd declarations about fashion in her Harper's Why Don't You column. It was Vreeland who told the world to "put tiny blond children in bright yellow bonnets" and to "wear violet velvet mittens with everything" and to "keep your nurse out of any uniform or veil in the park.The best English nannies wear grey flannel suits."
Though most Americans had little use for her advice, it invoked a fairyland world worth lazy afternoons filled with daydreams about exotic nonsense that makes life worth living, including "cherry red velvet," "monkey fur" and "parlor pink accessories."
These excesses spring to life in Stages Repertory Theatre's first offering of the season. Mark Hampton and Mary Louise Wilson have a wise and wisecracking script in Full Gallop. Vreeland and her eclectic take on life are charming, poignant and hysterically funny in this one-woman show. Sally Edmundson as the grand dame of style charges across the stage with a long-legged, wonderfully nutty, catlike energy that keeps the audience giggling out loud all night.
We meet Vreeland on her return from Europe. She fled there after being deposed from her position at Vogue. We quickly learn that Vreeland "loathes nostalgia" and will not be simpering about her "dismissal." Instead, she chain-smokes Lucky Strikes from a long, dark holder and spends the afternoon collecting her wits. Edmundson, who has the carriage of a queen and the most gorgeous, deep-throated growl of any actress in Houston, paces through Vreeland's emotional landscape with wonderfully wicked timing. She purrs out such one-liners as "blue jeans were the greatest invention since the gondola" and "we all need a splash of bad taste." She colors these giddy bites of funny fashion wisdom with an almost prayerful profundity.
Part of what makes these moments so richly layered is that they are coming from an older woman who is fighting to maintain her identity in an industry that thrives on youth. Over and over Vreeland returns to the New York Post article that suggests her days as a fashion powerhouse are over. She remembers her accomplishments -- printing the first article on plastic surgery. She remembers her husbands -- her first ironed his shoelaces. She remembers her mother, who thought she was ugly.
This comes from a woman who loathes nostalgia. And every memory she shares is tinged with adorable shades of irony; like the "greige, a combination of grey and beige," that Vreeland loved. Her take on life balances precariously on a thin wire between the sentimental and the mean-spirited.
She describes the day she was canned at Vogue with heartachingly articulate language, saying there was a bad atmosphere and "no eyes" on the faces of the people she worked with. Edmundson manages to find something deeper than sadness, something bigger and wiser in this larger-than-life woman.
Edmundson's masterful timing is supported by Rob Bundy's elegant direction. Dennis McNabb's red set manages to capture the rarefied and the ostentatious at once. The show belongs almost exclusively to Edmundson, although she gets great help from Nathalie Cunningham as Yvonne, the ubiquitous but always offstage French maid. When Vreeland first arrives, she buzzes and buzzes for her maid. Finally Yvonne's French "Oui?" comes loud and clear over the speaker. Vreeland responds, "Where have you been? I thought you'd been deported!"
Full Gallop runs through October 3 at Stages, 3201 Allen Parkway, (713) 527-0220. $17-$46.
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