When Mildred’s Umbrella moved into Classical Theatre Company’s Chelsea Market digs earlier this year, MU’s co-literary manager Elizabeth Keel thought it would be cool if the two companies did something that would combine their two missions. In Mildred’s case, that mission is championing plays by women that showcase the experience of being women. In Classical’s, it’s producing plays that are at least 100 years old, to preserve these pieces and expose current theatergoers to them.
Enter Diana of Dobson’s, Cicely Hamilton’s 1908 drama about a shop girl who unexpectedly inherits a hefty chunk of change and hightails it to a posh Swiss resort to blow it all.
“I fell in love with it,” says Keel, who is directing a staged reading of the piece with actors from both theater companies, "and I realized, very quickly, that it’s the uncredited source material for the Queen Latifah movie The Last Holiday.”
Fans of that romantic comedy will recall that Latifah plays Georgia, who works in a New Orleans department store’s housewares section. When she’s told she has a rare brain disease and is going to die, she cashes out her savings and uses it for a luxury vacation. Diana of Dobson’s never had the concept of its title character potentially dying, however: Diana inherits her windfall.
“I think the story is going to feel familiar to audiences,” Keel says. “At the same time, the issues the play brings up are still, I think, really relevant. Diana’s working this low-paying job, and she’s sick of work and sick of living paycheck-to-paycheck, so she just decides she’s going to blow this money on a good time.”
And with money, Diana finds, comes a different sort of existence—although not necessarily the one she or the audience might expect. Money might allow her to buy things she’s always wanted, but Diana also learns something about how people treat you when they think you’re rich.
“And when she decides to masquerade as a widow, she finds out she has a different level of freedom altogether,” Keel says.
The playwright, Cecily Hamilton, was a contemporary of George Bernard Shaw, and Keel said she loved the play’s “big, beautiful, spiral arguments” so reminiscent of Shaw. She was also drawn to how the play is both deeply cerebral and accessible.
The reading will be performed by a cast of 13 that Keel calls “an embarrassment of riches.”
“We really have some of the prettiest voices in Houston on this,” she says, including Shanae'a Moore as the title character, Lisa Villegas as Miss Jay, Brittny Bush as Mrs Whyte-Fraiser, Xzavien Hollins as Sir Jabez, and Lyndsay Sweeney as Miss Smithers. Keel, in addition to serving as director, will read the stage directions.
“I hope the audience comes away with an idea of how many stories we’ve not heard that are out there,” Keel says.
November 5 at 7:30 p.m. Free (Donations welcome). Chelsea Market Theater: 4617 Montrose Blvd. 832-463-0409. More info and tickets at midlredsumbrella.com.