We Happy Few brings ‘Lovers’ Vows’ into the twenty-first century

Elizabeth Inchbald’s Lovers’ Vows, first produced in 1798, is every bit as amusing as the unfortunately named Schitt’s Creek, The Good Place, or any other contemporary comedy. Inchbald, an actress and playwright, adapted it from her own translation of a work by German playwright August von Kotzebue (1761-1819). Kerry McGee, who directed her own adaptation, has taken advantage of the more modern aspects of the piece, such as an outspoken heroine and a son born out of wedlock, to make Lovers’ Vows uniquely relatable to today’s audiences.

Gabby Wolfe as Amelia and Alex Turner as Anhalt in 'Lovers' Vows' by We Happy Few. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.
Gabby Wolfe as Amelia and Alex Turner as Anhalt in ‘Lovers’ Vows’ by We Happy Few. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

Lovers’ Vows is mostly known for its key role in Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park. But it stands on its own, and McGee’s version is original, fast-moving, and a joy to watch. In the first scene we see Agatha (Jessica Lefkow) being turned out of an inn by the callous Landlord (Alex Turner). Agatha, overwhelmed with adversity, immediately gains our sympathy. The Landlord’s matter-of-fact dismissal of any moral obligation to her, as displayed by Turner, is at once disconcerting and very funny.

Agatha’s son Fredrick (Jack Novak) was born to Baron Wildenheim (Lee Ordeman) who abandoned her and married someone else. Lefkow then astonishes us as the perfidious Count Cassel, who never met a young lady who did not pique his interest. Chortling with glee, recounting his many conquests with false modesty, flirting with the audience, he represents every oily swamp creature who ever deemed himself worthy of a woman’s love. Lefkow satirizes the type even as she is embodying it. It is a superb piece of acting.

Equally impressive is the versatile Jack Novak. As Agatha’s son, he is incensed by her ill-treatment and manfully determined to alleviate her suffering. As the Butler, he soars into a kind of hilarious stratosphere. The Butler, you see, is a poet.

“Oh Muse, ascend the forked mount,

And lofty strains prepare, About a Baron and a Count,

Who went to hunt the hare.”

That sort of thing. Not only that, his poetry is inscribed on scrolls of various sizes which he unrolls with a flourish and the pride of an incurable author. Novak’s Butler is an inspired comic creation.

Jack Novak as the Butler in 'Lovers' Vows' by We Happy Few. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.
Jack Novak as the Butler in ‘Lovers’ Vows’ by We Happy Few. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

Gabby Wolfe is refreshingly honest and charming as our heroine, Amelia. We see her in many settings: dancing, laughing, and standing up for her own desires as a woman of today would do. As her lover, Anhalt, Alex Turner finds the humor in every excruciatingly awkward situation he faces.

Lee Ordeman is a fine Baron Wildenheim. The Baron is a character who has transgressed according to his own standards and must somehow come to terms with the pain he has caused others. Ordeman manages the transition subtly and well. He does not suddenly become a good person in the manner of melodrama, and this enriches the underlying meaning.

Besides these accomplished performances there is music, by local band The North Country, and Sound Design, by Tosin Olufolabi, which give a more 21st-century feel to what would otherwise be a period piece. Costumes by Heather Lockard are exceptionally visually appealing, and in addition illuminate character. Raven Bonniwell, as Movement Director, adds a graceful musical note to the proceedings. Lighting Design by Jason Aufdem-Brinke and Scenic Design by Jon Reynolds live up to the standard of the rest of the production.

McGee accomplishes something remarkable in Lovers’ Vows: she has enabled her actors to make fun of the melodramatic style even as they are playing it. Lovers’ Vows is 95 minutes with no intermission. I promise they will fly by.

Running Time: 95 minutes, with no intermission.

Lovers’ Vows, presented by We Happy Few, plays through November 23, 2019, at CHAW (Capitol Hill Arts Workshop), 545 7th Street SE, Washington, DC. For tickets, go online.

Keith Hock, Dramaturg; Sam Reilly, Stage Manager; Bridget Grace Sheaff, Producer; Stefany Pesta, Graphic Design; Kiernan McGowan, Props Design; Ken Johnson, Assistant Stage Manager

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Sophia Howes
Sophia Howes has been a reviewer for DCMTA since 2013 and a columnist since 2015. She is a playwright and director. An early draft of her play Southern Girl was performed at the Public Theater-NY, and two of her plays, Rosetta’s Eyes and Solace in Gondal, were produced at the Playwrights’ Horizons Studio Theatre. She studied with Curt Dempster at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, where her play Madonna was given a staged reading at the Octoberfest. Her one-acts Better Dresses and The Endless Sky, among others, were produced as part of Director Robert Moss’s Workshop-NY. She has directed The Tempest, at the Hazel Ruby McQuain Amphitheatre, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Monongalia Arts Center, both in Morgantown, WV. She studied English at Barnard, and received her BFA with honors in Drama from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Seidman Award for playwriting. Her play Adamov was produced at the Harold Clurman Theater on Theater Row-NY. She holds an MFA from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where received the Lucille Lortel Award for playwriting. She studied with, among others, Michael Feingold, Len Jenkin, Lynne Alvarez, and Tina Howe. Her father, Carleton Jones, long-time Real Estate Editor and features writer for the Baltimore Sun, inspired her to become a writer.

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