Springfield Contemporary Theatre presents the 2018 Missouri Solo Play Festival at SCT Center Stage in Wilhoit Plaza (corner of Pershing & Robberson) throughout the month of January, with plays about four great women running in repertory. The first play in the festival is "Walking Toward America" by Sandra Asher, adapted from the memoirs of Ilga Vise, longtime Springfield resident (and one of the interviewers on the League of Women Voters' Monday-morning KSMU program "Making Democracy Work"). Following that is "I'll Eat You First: A Chat with Sue Mengers" by John Logan, which depicts the larger-than-life Hollywood agent Sue Mengers telling tales about the showbiz world. David Montgomery directs "Walking Toward America" for SCT, and Gretchen Teague will direct "I'll Eat You First."
Equity actor Annie Meek Montgomery is once again portraying Ilga Katais-Paeglis Vise: she first did the play a few years ago at the Springfield-Greene County Library Center, with Ilga herself on hand for post-performance talkbacks with the audience. The story is structured as a series of contemporary reminiscences by Ilga Vise centering on World War II in the winter of 1944-45, when 10-year-old Ilga and her parents left their native Latvia to escape the Russian occupation of their city. Soon they were taken into a German forced-labor camp and, eventually, walked 500 miles across frozen, war-torn northern Germany, finding their way ultimately to a refugee camp in western Germany. Later they sailed through an Atlantic storm to safety and freedom here in America.
In the course of the evening Annie Montgomery plays numerous characters in addition to Ilga, who we also meet at ages 4, 10 and 17. If you've heard Ilga on KSMU's "Making Democracy Work" program, you've perhaps noticed her slight Eastern European accent. But that's something Annie Montgomery has chosen NOT to focus on in her portrayal--and for a "one-woman play", she has plenty on which to focus! "The one thing we recognize with the play is that it's about a memory," says Montgomery. "So we try to keep Ilga's voice as present to who she is now--at least that's the way I approached it as an actor. So the spirit of Ilga is there throughout. So we touch on the accents now and again to really highlight a character, but mostly I play it in what you would call a straight 'American' accent." But Montgomery isn't just representing Ilga: there are German soldiers; a ship's captain with an English accent. "I have to play about 20 different characters," she laughs.
Young Ilga and her family embarked on a truly harrowing journey, says Annie Montgomery, and she feels the story is very "relevant" to our own time. "It really does bring to light the struggles that immigrants had during that time"--and still do today. While Ilga and her family weren't Jewish, "she was still displaced," says Montgomery, "and it's important to see how (World War II) affected everyone in Europe and America. I learned so much from this story, truthfully." During the war the United States and the Soviet Union were actually allies against the Nazi/Fascist "Axis" powers. But for families like Ilga's, "there were NO 'allies.' The Germans were abusing her on one level, because they ended up in a forced-labor camp, very similar to a concentration camp. And the Russians were attacking them by strafing."
Annie Montgomery calls Ilga Vise's life story "important--and also very hopeful. When you see what people overcome and survive, really it's very traumatic." Yet Ilga came through the ordeal with serenity and strength, as anyone who knows her can tell you. "And she's also so full of life and joy and compassion and forgiveness and openness. And that's also what the play demonstrates, is that human spirit and love really conquer all."
While "Walking Toward America" has this weekend all to itself, with performances Friday and Saturday nights (January 5 and 6) at 7:30 pm and Sunday the 7th at 2:00 pm at SCT Center Stage, the show shares next weekend (Jan.12-14) with the second play in the 2018 Missouri Solo Play Festival, "I'll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers," written by John Logan and starring Leslie Ballew as the dynamic Hollywood talent agent, who died in 2011. "I'll Eat You Last" will continue through January 21.
Leslie Ballew says Sue Mengers was "the first high-powered female agent in Hollywood. Oddly enough, she also escaped Germany during World War II. She was Jewish, but her family didn't have quite the trials and tribulations (of Ilga Vise's family)--until they reached America, that is. Anyone who was anyone was her client in the 1970s and '80s." The list of people Mengers represented is astonishing: Barbra Streisand; Faye Dunaway; Burt Reynolds; Gene Hackman; Cher; Ryan O'Neal; Nick Nolte; as well as directors including Peter Bogdanovich, Mike Nichols and Bob Fosse, and even non-Hollywood celebrities such as author/political pundit Gore Vidal. Throughout her career, Sue Mengers was immersed in Hollywood, says Leslie Ballew. "Sue adored gossip... to quote the play, 'tis like mother's milk to me!' And she made it a point to make sure she knew who's in and who's out, and what's going on."
Menger's tried-and-true method for promoting her clients' careers was by throwing elaborate dinner parties in her home, usually involving a dozen or more carefully-chosen attendees--"it was a long audition, basically," says Ballew. "She was able to connect several people: Burt Reynolds and (writer/producer/director) Alan Pakula for 'Starting Over,' and Ann-Margaret and Mike Nichols for 'Carnal Knowledge.' That all happened at her dinner table."
But the setting for the play isn't one of Mengers' legendary dinner parties. Leslie Ballew describes it exactly the same way the play's subtitle does, as "really, truly, just a chat with Sue Mengers. You're in her living room. She's on her couch, waiting for a call from Barbra Streisand. It's a chat, she's telling stories--lots of interesting, fascinating stories." And these stories are chock full of mature language and situations: "very, very mature language and situations," confirms Ballew. "I had to warn my parents!" she laughs. Unlike "Walking Toward America," "I'll Eat You First" is truly a one-character play, just Sue Mengers both telling stories and talking on the phone with clients like Streisand, Sissy Spacek, or Richard Dreyfuss. "The audience gets to see Sue at work."
As a "high-powered" Hollywood agent, Sue Mengers wielded enormous influence in the business. Says Leslie Ballew. "She established herself early on as being someone who would fight for her clients. The men (talent agents) didn't necessarily play it like that at that point. So she brought an entirely new style of 'agenting' to Hollywood--much more aggressive. And as a woman I think she had to be aggressive. She had to have a very pronounced style in order to stand above the other people that were out there doing the same thing."
Humorous anecdotes and situations are very much the point of "I'll Eat You First." But there's definitely humor at times in "Walking Toward America" as well, says Annie Meek Montgomery. "Because it's so harrowing, and there are a lot of very dramatic parts, part of what got Ilga's family through it all was that they had this love and this humor, and this way of seeing the sunny side of things when they could. So, peppered throughout the play, just right when you need it, a different aspect of their life on the road will come through, that's filled with funny moments and kind of heartwarming."
Asked if there is anything "heartwarming" about Sue Mengers as depicted in "I'll Eat You First," Leslie Ballew assures us there is. Mengers was not the "barracuda" she may sound like. "Oh, yes. She actually loved her clients very much. She was very passionate about the people that she represented. And she learned, from many of them, very important lessons, I think, that all of us could benefit from. I know I have."
Tickets for both shows range from $10 to $22. A four-show package is available for all four plays in the Missouri Solo Play Festival for $64. For tickets call 831-8001 or visit www.springfieldcontemporarytheatre.org. There you'll find a complete schedule of performance days and times, as well as at the Community Calendar link right here at ksmu.org.