Everyone loves a good dose of nostalgia, and it’s very much in the air during the 40th anniversary season of Houston’s Stages Repertory Theatre. Starting Wednesday and continuing through August 20, audiences can satisfy their nostalgia for one of the greatest successes in the company’s history, Always...Patsy Cline. The show, written by Ted Swindley, the company’s founding artistic director, returns to its birthplace in a production helmed by Stages’ current artistic director Kenn McLaughlin, giving Houstonians yet another chance to enjoy a heartwarming, true story of friendship that remains relevant decades after the play’s 1988 debut.
Always...Patsy Cline focuses on the relationship between the legendary country music singer and one of her die-hard fans, Louise Seger, which began after a chance encounter at the old Esquire Ballroom in Houston. The play centers around letters of correspondence written by the two women, which continued until Cline’s early death in 1963.
McLaughlin first saw the play in Cleveland in 1997, immediately realizing that there “was something special about it, not only because the music was phenomenal, [but] because Patsy Cline was eternal.” (In fact, he loved it so much he saw it twice.) After coming to Stages, McLaughlin found himself producing the play himself in 2004, directing it in 2008, 2013, and now for a third time. Over the course of his 20-year relationship with Swindley’s work, McLaughlin’s affection for it has only deepened, he says, as has his exploration of the extraordinary friendship between Cline and Seger.
For McLaughlin, the potency of Always...Patsy Cline stems from its examination of “that side of our nature that loves celebrity,” but also its depiction of two “incredibly strong women at the center.” In the play, he says, Cline is depicted as a “determined, powerful, take-no-prisoners kind of woman,” while Seger, a single mother from Texas, is something of a foil.
McLaughlin hopes audiences will respond to the “little touched-on moments throughout the play where [the two women] connect deeper and deeper on different issues.” Chief among these is the mistreatment women suffered (and still suffer) at the hands of a male-dominated world—Cline by the music industry, Seger by her boss and her boyfriend. Needless to say, the play remains relevant in ways Cline herself probably couldn’t have imagined. As McLaughlin delicately puts it, in every era, “the play takes on a new color, a fresh way of being heard.”
There’s something else new about the play this time: Swindley’s involvement, which McLaughlin calls a “wonderful and invaluable” asset. Although no longer a Houston resident, the playwright has visited the present production, attending rehearsals and offering input on how to bring the story to life for a 2017 audience. “It was incredible to have that dramaturgical knowledge,” says McLaughlin, “but also just personal knowledge about Patsy and her story.”
As for why Stages continues to revisit the play time after time, McLaughlin quotes a comment made by the technical director of a past production of the show: “It feels like meeting an old friend again, and it feels wonderful.”
June 28—August 20. Tickets from $21. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, Suite 101. 713-527-0123. More info at stagestheatre.com.