Ursula (Carol Ann Erford), right, tells Mae (Madge Levinson), left, and Lillian (Joanne Toth) how she would run things.
A production about aging prostitutes would not seem to be the stuff of dinner theater, but for the most part, it works.
By turns thoughtful, funny, acerbic, and poignant, the show is The Oldest Profession, and it's being presented through early November at Ms. Rose's Dinner Theater in Perrysburg.
Written by Paula Vogel, who won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for her How I Learned to Drive, The Oldest Profession contains many of Vogel's signature elements, especially her willingness to tackle tough subjects and find a lot of humor amid the dramatic moments.
Not many people could make prostitution sympathetic, but Vogel does, simply by having her subjects consider it no more than a job and because Rick Haag's cast comprises five of the finest actresses working in the region.
The show takes place in 1982, right before the election of Ronald Reagan.
Each act is a simple variation of a theme. On a long park bench in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the women meet to talk about life, their aging clients, the hard times that their business is facing, the joys of the past, the uncertainty of the future. Each act brings a death, signaling a major change in the survivors' lives.
The prostitutes are Mae (Madge Levinson), the madame of a "stable" that includes ambitious Ursula (Carol Ann Erford); the quiet Lillian (Joanne Toth), who is often the target of Ursula's sharp tongue; the fluttery Vera (Pat Rudes), who just wants to keep the peace, and Edna (Vickie Jackson), the fashion plate with a lust for living.
Through their conversations, we learn that the women started "the life" in New Orleans' Storyville but came to New York after the Big Easy's city fathers, succumbing to the tide of Puritanism sweeping the country after World War I, closed down the famous Red Light district.
After a while, it doesn't matter that the women are prostitutes, because their hopes and dreams are almost universal: security, fun, a patch of flowers, a desire to feel needed, good friends to help each other over the rough patches, and some fresh raspberries.
They worry about crime and drugs and the high cost of living, helped along by politicians disguising tax cuts for the rich as benefits for the middle class, subjects with more than a little relevance today.
It is a measure of the strength of the cast that although each actress seems to misspeak at one time or another, it is hard to tell whether this is a mistake or part of the characterization.
Of the five, the characters of Rudes, Jackson, and Erford are the most sharply defined. Levinson and Toth don't make much of an impression, but that seems to be the way the play is written, rather than lackluster performances.
Erford's Ursula is the villain of the piece, if you can call her that. Sure of her financial acumen and filled with contempt for Mae's kinder, gentler management style, Ursula gets to spout some of the best jokes and causes the group its most problems. Jackson's Edna is simply fun to be around, and Rudes' Vera is someone you'd like to have as a grandmother or kindly aunt.
It seems strange to say that you'd like to have a prostitute as a kindly aunt, but by the time The Oldest Profession ends, that is the overriding emotion.
Whether it is Vogel's intention or not, the strength of her play is that it forces us to see the women as individuals, not as a profession or a stereotype.
It forces us to think.
"The Oldest Profession" continues on a limited schedule at Ms. Rose's Dinner Theater, 25740 North State Rt. 25, Perrysburg. Remaining performances are at 8 p.m. tomorrow; Oct. 7, 14, 21, 28; and Nov. 4 and 11; at 2 p.m. Oct. 19, 26, and Nov. 9, and at 5 p.m. Oct. 9.
Doors open two hours earlier for the buffet meal, which included in the price. Tickets range from $25 to $39. Information: 419-874-8505.
Contact Nanciann Cherry at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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