WILSON — One-person shows are difficult to pull off, but that hasn't daunted "Theater of the American South," Wilson's annual Southern culture festival.
It mounts one every spring in repertory with another play.
"The Last Flapper," William Luce's overview of Zelda Fitzgerald, is this season's entry. Unfortunately, it doesn't fully succeed in overcoming the genre's pitfalls.
Luce, a one-person play specialist ("Belle of Amherst," "Lillian") seems to have the elements for success in this story of F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife. Luce uses her writings, commercial and private, to assess her troubled existence; she was tormented by demons external and internal.
The play is set in a psychiatrist's office in Asheville's Highland Hospital, Zelda Fitzgerald's home for more than a decade. It is March 10, 1948, the last day of Zelda's life. She arrives to find the doctor not in. Suddenly, the public address system announces that Dr. Carroll has been called away and all appointments are canceled.
Left alone, Zelda rummages through the doctor's files. After reading her own, she sets out on an imaginary psychiatric examination, vowing to tell what should really be known about her life. She calls up random memories of her Alabama childhood, her rocky marriage to hard-drinking Scott, her despair at his denigration of her writing and her recurring mental breakdowns.
Luce has arresting material to work with, yet rarely makes the best of it. Much of the first act is light and humorous, recounting un-involving incidents with little about Scott, the main source of interest. The second act turns starkly dramatic as Zelda reveals her husband's betrayals and infidelities, making for more empathetic engagement but coming too late to stave off a feeling of lethargy from the play's two hours, not counting intermission.
Luce gets away with using the public address system's voice as various characters in Zelda's head, but cheats by having it become Zelda's mother and enter into dialog with Zelda. And it's a flimsy premise that Zelda could be left in the office so long without being noticed.
Betsy Henderson deserves great credit for memorizing the lengthy script and for confidently executing the physically active staging from director Marc Fajer. Henderson has smart comic timing and exhibits a wide range of emotions. But her energetic, youthful demeanor as the 48-year-old Zelda indicates little of the character's world-weariness and instability, and narrows the contrast of her younger Zelda in flashback. Henderson is better in darker, reflective moments than in the factual narrative sections, which are too blandly similar.
Chris Bernier's set is nicely detailed but Liz Droessler's lighting seems hampered by too few instruments to effectively suggest the sudden switches of Zelda's mind, often leaving her in shadow for important segments.
"The Last Flapper" has an undeniably interesting subject. But Zelda comes to life only in brief flashes with this particular combination of talents.