Zelda, Save Me the Waltz

CF001495 8rsBy Philip Pearce

LOCAL PRODUCER/PLAYWRIGHT Tom Parks and local actor/director Rosemary Luke have combined to stage one of Parks’ 3 Women Voices Plays at the Carl Cherry Center. Parks has already produced a play about Gertrude Stein, and Luke has played his Dorothy Parker. This time it’s Zelda, Save Me the Waltz, an hour-long set of reminiscences by an incarcerated, creative diva of the roaring twenties.

We’re in a unit of Highland Hospital, a mental institution in Asheville, North Carolina. It is 1948 and a reporter named Henry Piper (played with gentlemanly Southern suavity by the versatile Garland Thompson) has come for an interview. His proposed piece has been sparked, perhaps, by the post-World War Two revival of attention to and praise for the neglected Great Gatsby. Hardly needing to ask questions of the voluble Zelda, he records highlights of her fabulous, self-destructive married life with F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Rosemary Luke has a stage presence that is by nature focused and serene. Her Zelda starts off that way. She is winsome and playful, gently eccentric with a gorgeous laugh Luke uses with fine effect, but she holds back on the inner torments a more histrionic player might have exploited or at least hinted at early on in the hour. This initial restraint, however, possibly gives more of an edge to Zelda’s later explosions of rage and grief at having been kept by her exhibitionist spouse in his literary shadow and her entrapment in a succession of insane asylums.

Parks’ well-researched script supplies a lot of facts about the Fitzgeralds. Some were familiar to me: those razzle-dazzle rides on the roofs of Broadway taxis, Scott’s destructive ego mania and extramarital dalliance with columnist Sheila Graham, his plagiarizing and even theft of material written by his wife. But it was intriguing to learn for the first time of Zelda’s fervent if unfocused religiosity in her years of incarceration. At one point in the interview, she forces the embarrassed Piper to kneel beside her for an impromptu prayer.

Combining familiarity with surprise, the script is an interesting piece of oral history with nice shifts of mood as Zelda’s mind jumps from topic to topic. What it really isn’t is a play with a central dramatic point. Zelda reminisces because Piper has come to record what she has to say. She makes one brief, fruitless offer to supply occasional columns to Piper’s paper, but he ignores the suggestion and she hardly seems to have anything else at stake in granting him the interview. Her conflicts and longings, triumphs and failures, all lie in the past. Resolved or unresolved, nothing that has delighted or traumatized her in the past changes or is seen in a new light in her hour with Piper. A pathetic final moment when she scares him away by deciding he is Scott and then delusionally rebukes him for supposedly pretending to be suggests a possible dramatic relationship between the two characters. But it’s too late. Piper just leaves, the delusion fades and the evening ends with a radio news item announcing her death. Zelda’s only immediate challenge has been repeated jokey requests to escape.

I kept returning to her brief episodic moments with the sympathetic but strong-willed hospital functionary responsible for keeping Zelda’s quarters locked and Zelda inside. We meet this character only as a voice speaking from the hallway in the always exciting but here recorded tones of Jill Jackson. What if, I started asking myself, Zelda’s reminiscences and reflections had been carried on not with a newsman but with this kind but rule-ridden doorkeeper? Would Zelda, Save Me the Waltz have been less of an illustrated history lesson and more of a story if it was about a prisoner using the glories and horrors of her past life in a vain effort to charm her jailor into surrendering the keys to the jail?

But my job is to comment on what happened, not what might have happened. And it’s a pleasant hour of treasures new and old from an important moment in American history.