The Illustrated Woman Nancy Kiefer's depression-era drama seeks, but never finds, adequate focus. It has enough backstories for a half-dozen plays -- incest, rape, amnesia, adultery, hard times -- but the major plot devices hinge around daughter Jane Ellen's secrets resulting from a childhood trauma, which are telegraphed through the reading of diary entries. When the work's most fascinating character, a traveling carnival's tattooed lady, doesn't appear, you know the play's in trouble. Furthering that impression are Ma and Pa, who always look surprised when abused daughter Jane Ellen starts acting "schizo and scary." She's been strange for years, we're told through blocks of exposition -- and now they notice? These are juicy, over-the-top roles that demand fire and flash, not the limp-laundry line readings given here. Laura Schlecht is convincing in the role of fractured daughter Jane Ellen's alter ego, who's a very bad girl, but her wimpy Jane Ellen comes across as demented, not psychologically scarred. It's not entirely her fault; playwright Kiefer glosses over all her characters. Dean R. Dicks puts alcoholic Dad on solid ground, though, giving this paper-thin villain a semblance of reality, and Danitra Tapscott tells her long monologue about meeting the "illustrated woman" with refreshing naturalness. But no one is helped by the staging, which places most of the scenes upstage, behind a hanging window frame and mirror that block our view. There's an intriguing play lurking somewhere between the lines, it's just hard to find when so covered up. Through March 27 at Theatre Suburbia, 1410 West 43rd, 713-682-3525.
Rebecca Daphne du Maurier knew how to write a cracking pseudo-Gothic tale -- the novel Rebecca, a psychological mystery about a young wife trying to overcome the legacy of her husband's first wife, the lovely, deceased Rebecca, is evidence enough of that. But she couldn't write a play to save her life. There are moments when Country Playhouse's production of Rebecca catches fire, but mostly there aren't enough sparks to warm your hands on a hot Houston night. It's not entirely the company's fault. Du Maurier should have left well enough alone rather than quickly penning the story's 1939 stage version: Nothing much is dramatized, and it's all reported after the fact. What is Country Playhouse's fault, however, is the absolute lack of atmosphere in this drama, which is supposed to be shrouded in shadows, fog, moonlight and rain. It's been reported that the flood-light wash will be subdued in subsequent performances, and that's a good thing. The music interludes between scenes need to be changed, too -- they add nothing to the period flavor, nor do they support the claustrophobic suspense this undyingly great story demands. Still, Country Playhouse's production has its good points. It's well cast, with a dashing, if too young, Jeff Featherston as Maxim de Winter, and the equally young-looking Stacie Williams as his naive new bride. Williams nicely captures the out-of-her-element quality her character must have for the play to succeed; Barbara Lasater evokes Judith Anderson's chilling film portrayal from Hitchcock's version of the story (which won the Academy Award for Best Picture); Sheryl Croix brings maternal warmth to Maxim's slightly dotty sister Beatrice; and Michael LaPrade adds oily repugnance to the blackmailing Jack Favell. The title character, of course, never appears, but Maxim's glamorous first wife permeates the drama, infiltrating every cranny of the great country estate and messing up the lives of those living within it. Through April 3 at Country Playhouse, Town & Country Village, 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497.
Steel Magnolias UpStage Theatre's fragrant rendition of Robert Harling's tale of small-town southern womanhood, Steel Magnolias, might succeed with some other actress playing beauty-parlor maven Truvy, but Lisa Schofield is, in a word, magnificent -- and reason enough to head to the Jewish Community Center for this show. It's refreshing to find such a centered performer, so at home in turquoise toreador pants, tight black sequined top and killer high-heel sandals. Truvy is the big mushy heart of this southern-fried comedy/drama, whose immense success has turned the play into a cult franchise. A tower of strength to the other women at her salon, she gets the show's best one-liners. Hard as press-on nails, she's a softie underneath, waiting for her "sofa slug" husband to rekindle romance and her two from-hell grown boys to settle down. With a voice like a whiskey sour and a star's presence, Schofield nails her role. Dottie McQuarrie's football-lovin' Clairee is close on Schofield's heels, giving the "first lady of Cinquapin, Louisiana" a highball-tinged touch of class. Sheri Lynn's haunted-rabbit Annelle blossoms in the second act when her character finds Jesus. Christiana Carroll's mean ol' Ouiser pulls back just short of over-the-top, which is too bad, because the town curmudgeon is an over-the-top character. The hankie-wringing drama comes from the illness of vibrant young Shelby (Alex Aurisch) and her combative yet loving mother M' Lynn (Ann Reese). These actresses' tentative approach saps the play, so by the final scene, when mom breaks down, we've stopped caring. Reese, though, finally comes alive at the end. And count on Schofield's Truvy to pull us back in and make us care -- both about these six best friends and about the power of live theater. Through April 10 at the JCC, 5601 South Braeswood, 713-838-7191