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Sweet songs and a simple story highlight TheatreVirginia's "Fair and Tender Ladies" 

Tangled up in Ivy

When a musical tells someone's life story, it's usually about a real person who somehow became bigger than life (think "Gypsy" Rose Lee or "Funny Girl" Fanny Brice). The tale of Ivy Rowe, the fictional Appalachian matriarch who is the focus of TheatreVirginia's "Fair and Tender Ladies," might seem small in comparison. But as depicted in TVa's vibrant and lyrical production, this spunky, persistent woman is shown to be worthy of star treatment. Complemented by a first-rate cast and accentuated by some fine old-timey songs, Ivy's story reveals the dignity and depth that can be found in a simple life lived fully.

Ivy grows up dirt poor in the mountains of southwest Virginia, has children, gets married, suffers tragic losses and enjoys modest pleasures. Throughout it all, she writes letters, most of them to her brain-damaged oldest sister, Silvaney (Lori Fischer), but also to her dead father, her favorite teacher and her far-flung children. The letters act as an effective framing device for different stages of Ivy's life while also providing a window into her soul.

Ivy never does anything that might be called extraordinary. Oh, she has a torrid affair with a beekeeper and a little civil disobedience lands her picture in the paper. Still, these diversions aren't emphasized as much as the common events that punctuate everyone's life: the discovery of love, the death of a parent, the birth of a child. Rosemary Loar, the superb actress who plays Ivy, leads us through it all with a cheerful intensity. Narrating throughout and present in almost every scene, Loar's impressive stamina mirrors that of her character.

"Ladies" underscores Ivy's life-changing moments with songs performed on stage by the cast playing guitars, mandolins and fiddles. The show's plaintive ballads, in particular, are perfectly calibrated to tug forcefully at your heart, so that the show works convincingly on an emotional level. On other levels, the show is less successful. For instance, Ivy's social-climbing sister Beulah (portrayed with comic impudence by Jennifer Neuland) serves as an important psychic counterpoint to Ivy in the first act, but then disappears after intermission. Other characters and events are similarly glossed over.

But any defects in the play are more than counterbalanced by the talent involved in this production. Actresses Fischer and Neuland support Loar wonderfully in multiple roles. The rest of the cast (Kelly Kennedy, Drew Perkins and Boyd Deering) provide impeccable musical backup and fill out some of the smaller parts skillfully. Lighting designer William Grant III adds luster to many scenes; during the funeral of Ivy's father, streaks of light on a sheer scrim seem to emanate directly from heaven. Pulling it all together is director William Roudebush, whose smallest touches are often inspired: Fiddle flourishes bring a drawing lesson to life and a large cedar chest at center stage holds several surprises.

Ivy's final proclamation that she "walked in her body like a queen" offers a kind of well-grounded wisdom that you don't usually find in a musical. The story of "Fair and Tender Ladies" may be a simple one but, if anything, that makes it a rarer treasure.

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