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Home > Columnists > Doug Strassler
January 12, 2018

The Girl Who Jumped Off the Hollywood Sign

by Doug Strassler


It takes place nearly seventy years ago, but the abuses that drive Evie Edwards to contemplate hurling herself off the famous Los Angeles landmark in performer-writer Joanne Hartstone’s The Girl Who Jumped Off the Hollywood Sign sound alarmingly familiar. Relevance alone should be reason enough to recommend this play, currently running in a production directed by Vince Fusco at Theatre For a New City, but I can think of an even more compelling one: this show provides the first dazzling performance of the new year.


Evie greets the audience after climbing up and situating herself in the empty space of the “H” of the sign (production designer Tom Kitney has fashioned the back of a section of the letter), and begins flashes back to explain how the sad events of her life have led her to this precarious position. During the Depression, her mother died and she was forced to live in a St. Louis Hooverville with her father, a man with a taste for alcohol and gambling. Eventually, a job with Howard Hughes transports father and daughter to California, and a job as messenger girl at MGM exposes Evie to the many indignities of show business.


If Evie’s tale sounds like the stuff of Old Hollywood tearjerkers, that’s no accident. Hartstone, an Australian, has certainly done her homework, and she peppers her play with plenty of anecdotes to please fans of Turner Classic Movies. Not only do these references to performers like Theda Bara, Judy Garland, and Jean Harlow (whose early death from kidney failure is attributed to studio-enforced hair bleaching) inform the audience of rampant victimization of women, Evie’s reenactments of her life story also allow her to step down from the Hollywood and sign and walk across the rest of the stage, lest the audience grow weary from lack of movement. Among these recreations is a funny audition opposite Cary Grant in the Sidney Sheldon-penned The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer; the performer’s imitations are a impressive as her finely honed 1940s patois.


Girl is neither emotionally nor visually inert, either., thank is part to Kitney’s spot-on Technicolor lighting design, practically a character unto itself. Throughout, Hartstone not only walks the fine line atop the “H,” she also carefully avoids pathos while recounting the events that led her to contemplate suicide in the same fashion as real-life cautionary tale Peg Entwistle did a decade earlier. Hartstone’s Evie evinces a rueful blend of sorrow while battling a not-quite-extinguished glimmer of hope for the idea that stardom might still claim her. The tragedy is all-too-visible in Hartstone’s layered portrait: Evie has potential, which is different from star quality.


Still, while Evie has a lot to say about Hollywood, she has less to reveal about herself. Girl could benefit from being less of a filmography and more of an exploration of just how systems can corrode the disenfranchised. I wish we knew more about what defined Evie and less about the external circumstances that threatened to destroy her. Nonetheless, Girl is a potent reminder that the current issues dominating headlines date back vey far, and the ripple effect can be disastrous. It’s also a wonderful display for Hartstone, a performer with talent to spare.


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