Sometimes you find a gem in an unlikely place. That happened to me recently at a small state-of-the-art black-box theatre on the campus of a boarding school on a quiet street in Alexandria, Virginia, where Monumental Theatre Company has mounted an absolutely exquisite production of Daddy Long Legs, an intimate and moving two-person musical with book by John Caird (Les Miserables) and music and lyrics by Paul Gordon (Jane Eyre).
Daddy Long Legs is based on the 1912 epistolary novel by Jean Webster. Caird and Gordon have kept that format for the musical and the plot unfolds through a series of letters between a young woman named Jerusha Abbott and Jervis Pendleton, a mysterious man who has a profound impact on her life.
The play begins in 1908 in the John Greer Home, an orphanage where Jerusha is the oldest and much of the care of the younger children has fallen on her. Jerusha’s life is monotonous, her future uncertain – until she receives a very unusual offer. A trustee of the orphanage, whom she has never met, has gifted her a four-year college education.
There are several conditions that come with this act of charity, including that she must write her benefactor, who she will never meet, every month. She will never know who he is and he will never write back. Gleefully, Jerusha accepts this gift and dives headfirst into a world she has never known. As the years pass and Jerusha matures, her life becomes more complicated and her curiosity about her benefactor develops into a desperate need for connection with an anonymous man who, in exchange for his generosity, attempts to exert tremendous control over her.
As Jerusha, Caroline Wolfson inhabits this character down to the smallest detail as we see her evolve from a sheltered girl into an independent, educated woman. She has a rich, beautiful voice that is perfectly suited to Gordon’s emotional lyrics and evocative melodies, ably played by a small band led by musical director Marika Countouris.
Wolfson is matched by Kurt Boehm as Jervis, the uncle of one of Jerusha’s college roommates and a man who is not the person he appears to be. It is a complex and demanding role and Boehm, who has a smooth, deep voice, rises to the occasion.
With the audience seated on two sides, the action plays out on Jessica Cancino’s simple set which is covered in letters and stacked with books. Kristen P. Ahern’s costumes are period perfect with attention paid to every button, pleat, and bow.
Director Michael Windsor has taken this deceptively simple material and staged it with a polish not usually seen from theatre companies of Monumental’s size. It’s hard to make it seem effortless, but Windsor and his collaborators have accomplished that. Every single element works together in a kind of euphoric harmony. (Read David Siegel’s interview with Windsor here).
Daddy Long Legs is an unconventional and surprising love story. But it’s not fluff. It asks big questions about the nature and purpose of charity. Jervis says, “If charity is dispensed to someone the giver truly cares for, how can it ever be enough?” And we wonder, is the benefactor really helping Jerusha or is it, in fact, the other way around?
There is a longing inside of Jerusha and Jervis that both flourishes, and is held back by words. In a moment of quiet connection, they sing,
I’ve discovered the secret,
the secret of happiness is
living in the now.
Living in the time it takes to blink is how
we’re meant to be living.
For these two people from different worlds, that lyric is both a promise to themselves – and to each other.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Lighting design, Rob Siler; Sound design, Michael “Dags” D’Agostino.