On with the Show: Overture, Curtain, Lights in Hampton Court

On with the Show: Overture, Curtain, Lights in Hampton Court

By KEVIN NANCE

If you weren’t aware that Lexington’s Kevin Lane Dearinger has spent his entire adult life immersed in the theater, a visit to his light-filled condo in a historic complex on Hampton Court clears things up nicely.

The singer-actor, drama teacher, playwright and memoirist from Versailles has feathered his top- floor aerie with theater mementos and memorabilia, including enlarged cabinet posters, photographs, statuary, books and other items. A smattering are from his own 25-year career as a New York-based performer in Broadway musicals and national touring productions, including My Fair Lady, Hello, Dolly!, A Little Night Music and The Secret Garden. Others intersect with his work as a theater historian with emphasis on prominent classical actors of the 19th and early

20th centuries with strong Kentucky connections.

“The wall in my office used to be covered with a memento of almost every show I ever did, but it’s much more subdued now,” Dearinger says one recent morning, sitting on his living room sofa beneath images of famous actors, most of whom made tour stops in Lexington in the 19th and early 20th centuries. “My career in the theater was lovely, it was fulfilling, but I can’t live in a museum of my past. I don’t mind living in the past of these folks.”

The folks in question include the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt, whose American farewell tour stopped in Lexington — by then “one of the most important arts centers west of the Alleghenys,” as Dearinger puts it — in 1903. Next to The Divine Sarah, as she was known, are Julia Marlowe, a noted Shakespearean, as Viola in Twelfth Night; the Kentucky-born Marie Prescott (whose biography Dearinger published in 2009) as Lady Macbeth; and Creston Clarke, a nephew of John Wilkes and Edwin Booth, as Hamlet.

Above the mantelpiece in the condo, which Dearinger bought in 1995, is a portrait of the tragedian Thomas W. Keene, who inspired his first book, The Bard in the Bluegrass: Two Centuries of Shakespearean Performance in Lexington, Kentucky (McFarland and Company, 2007). (Keene was reviled by New York critics as a “ranter,” Dearinger says, “but Lord, they loved him on the road.”)

In the hallway is Rose Coghlan, an English actress who toured extensively in America beginning in the 1870s. 

And in Dearinger’s bedroom is a virtual shrine to Mrs. Leslie Carter (born in Lexington in 1857 as Caroline Louise Dudley), a

red-haired beauty who married a wealthy Chicagoan, endured a scandalous divorce and went on to become a great stage star as “the American Bernhardt” around the turn of the century under her ex-husband’s name, vowing to make it “infamous.”

“His apartment is a repository of theater history and absolutely an extension of Kevin, who is himself a repository of all things theatrical,” says Bo List, who directed a staged reading of Regarding Mrs. Carter, Dearinger’s play about the actress’s tumultuous life, in 2013, and worked with the playwright on other projects at the recently closed AthensWest Theatre Company. “Nobody knows the history of theater, in Lexington particularly, quite like Kevin.”

Dearinger loves his life on Hampton Court, where he has lived full-time since moving back to Lexington. He remembers one morning in 1995, lying on the floor of his newly acquired apartment in a pool of light, thinking, ‘This is the happiest place I have ever been.’” It still is.

Dearinger’s latest contribution to theater history is his new book featuring another American diva, On Stage with Bette Davis: Inside the Famous Flop of Miss Moffat, published this spring by McFarland. In this entertaining, beautifully written memoir, Dearinger revisits the splashy yet sobering dawn of his career as a fresh-faced New York actor, when in 1974 he was cast in Miss Moffat, a new Broadway musical adaptation of Emlyn Williams’s 1938 play The Corn Is Green, about a teacher who mentors a young Welsh miner. In the musical, the action was transposed to the American South, with Bette Davis playing a Yankee schoolmarm who sees the potential in a young black student.

The Oscar-winning film star’s association with the show, directed by Broadway veteran Josh Logan with a cast that also featured Dody Goodman and Nell Carter, seemed to guarantee its success, but it wasn’t to be. Drawing on his notes from a journal written during the show, Dearinger gives a riveting, detailed account of the ill-fated production, which closed during its tryout run in Philadelphia after a barrage of negative reviews.

Dearinger expertly describes Davis’s singing voice as “somewhere below a rusty hinge.” Though she’d had moments of brilliance, by age 66 she was experiencing stamina and memory problems. In the first preview, she forgot the lyrics to one of her songs, then snapped onstage at a young man who tried to feed her a line. Looking back now at the age of 70, Dearinger has considerable sympathy for the woman he always calls Miss Davis. “These days I couldn’t learn ‘Yankee Doodle’ if it was a new tune,” he says. “If I was in the lead of a big show and the weight was on me and I suddenly was faltering, I wouldn’t have lasted as long as she did.”

Worst of all was Davis’s profound insecurity; always on guard against flattery, she was all but incapable of accepting moral support from her castmates. 

“If I’d given her a hug and said ‘You’re wonderful, this is going to be really good,’ she would have flattened me,” Dearinger says now. “It was impossible to make her feel better.”

The sole exception was one night when, standing in the wings right before Dearinger’s entrance, she told him in her famously clipped Yankee accent that he was ‘guht’ in the show. 

“So are you, old girl,” he responded without thinking, and stepped onstage.

 

ALL ABOUT KEVIN 

 

Retired from acting and teaching, Dearinger remains highly productive as a published writer and poet. 

Most recently, Dearinger has been serving as a blogger for the Lexington Theatre Company’s productions of The Little Mermaid and Chicago.

The script for Dearinger’s one-woman show Regarding Mrs. Carter has been receiving renewed attention, with a well-known New York actress considering it, and a separate reading recently on Zoom featuring Lexington actress Penny Fuller. “Kevin writes beautifully about strong, passionate women,” says Julieanne Pogue, who performed the role of Mrs. Carter back in 2013.

“He has some of that same kind of passion himself.” 

Dearinger admits that “I’d pretty much kill” to get Regarding Mrs. Carter produced.