As anyone who has been there on a weekend knows, Magpie’s Diner can be a bit of a madhouse, but never so much as when Townsite Actors Guild brought the tragic story of Zelda Fitzgerald’s life to a little stage in the corner on February 7 and 8.
The Last Flapper was a one-woman portrayal of one woman’s struggle with mental illness, alcoholism, a toxic relationship and perhaps the most powerful: drugs, fame and money. But there are really four people responsible for the spectacle appreciative audiences witnessed on both nights.
First, star-crossed lovers Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who may well have been the reason for the phrase: “You can’t write this stuff”; playwright William Luce, who combed through Zelda’s papers and created a masterpiece out of her own words and thoughts; and Stephanie Miller, the local star of the piece. More about her later, much more.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s star rose in the 1920s with the publication of This Side of Paradise, his first novel. He became known as the definer of the wild and notorious Jazz Age, which he and his wife fell into with abandon, drinking heavily and causing numerous scandalous scenes in New York circles.
When Zelda was finally institutionalized, F. Scott moved to Hollywood and had an affair with columnist Sheilah Graham, dying of a heart attack at 44. Zelda spent 12 years at the Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, dying with eight others in a tragic accidental fire. She was 48.
Diagnosed with schizophrenia and tortured by her own demons, she was also damaged by her marriage to the equally damaged F. Scott, whom she continually accused of plagiarizing her own writings and stifling a writing career she desperately craved for herself.
The play takes place in the hospital psychiatrist’s office in the the evening just hours before the fire; the doctor had cancelled and Zelda was left alone.
She realizes she is free from all restraint at this moment, steals a smoke from the cigarette box on the mantel, then one more, and then launches into a kinetic, mesmerizing, rambling soliloquy that takes the audience through a journey from a well-to-do upbringing in Montgomery, Alabama, up to the bright lights of New York and down to an insane asylum in North Carolina.
Miller kept the audience rapt throughout her performance, portraying every nuance of the skittish, conflicted, bitter, hurt, betrayed, defiant and insecure Zelda, who is unaware the last, most random, most cruel act of her life will be played out in a few short hours. At one moment barely audible in her madness, the next shrieking while smashing books off the mantel onto the floor, Miller was a perfect jittery schizophrenic. She moved frenetically from mood to mood and decade to decade while employing a dynamic voice ranging from kitten purrs to violent rages that may have had those in the front row reconsidering their choice of seating.
Never stopping her restlessness for more than a few seconds, Miller filled the stage with movement and sound; the language of her body and expressive face and hands brought to life the image of the poor, doomed Zelda.
The legend of the Fitzgeralds has long outlived their beloved Jazz Age, as generations have been strangely drawn to their story: a classic cocktail of success mixed with despair. No one knows whether or not Zelda rests in peace, but in Miller’s performance she once again came briefly to life as The Last Flapper.
Patrick Rowe is a Powell River resident and former editor of the Prince Rupert Daily News.