The Last Hotel for Women

Birmingham Festival Theatre revives  a classic of its own making.

By Tom Wofford     Photography by Kim Riegel

In the mind of board president Edward Miller, there was only one play to consider for closing out Birmingham Festival Theatre’s 40th anniversary season this month.

“The Last Hotel for Women is the quintessential BFT play,” Miller says, shrugging because the opinion is almost impossible to dispute. A landmark 1996 production at the iconic Southside theatre, the play is an honest look at a crucial period in Birmingham history, and it hadn’t been revived in the 16 years since its first smash run. “Nothing else had this kind of connection to the theatre and the space,” Miller says.

The revival of The Last Hotel for Women opens on June 14th and runs continuously through June 30th.

The original idea — for Randy Marsh to return to the theatre he co-founded and direct a stage adaptation of his sister’s red-hot novel about civil rights era Birmingham — was so good in 1996 that no one is certain where the idea came from. Randy’s widow, Haden Marsh (Randy died in 2005), said then-BFT board president Vastine Stabler came to Randy with the idea. Stabler isn’t so sure Marsh didn’t approach him.

A fixture of Five Points South for parts of five decades, BFT was born in 1972 in a theatre environment consisting almost exclusively of feel-good musicals at Town and Gown or the Jewish Community Center.

From the beginning, BFT founders Carl Stewart, Vic Fichtner and Marsh brought newer, more progressive plays to Birmingham, staging shows about alcoholism, abortion, homosexuality, dysfunctional families and euthanasia. BFT went after the hottest properties straight out of the exploding New York theatre scene and staged Southern premiers by prominent working playwrights.

“They didn’t break even much in those early years,” Haden Marsh said, “but the answer to that problem was always ‘Do another show!’”

In 1996, Stabler was launching the Southern Playworks collaboration with UAB Theatre, founded to produce new plays during summer seasons on alternating stages.

Edward Miller

“At BFT we were doing plays based on the works of Southern women novelists like Elizabeth Dewberry and Rebecca Wells, and we’d had a lot of success with them,” Stabler says. “There was no one more popular to readers in Birmingham at the time than Vicki Covington, and she had this fantastic new novel about Birmingham history. Since her brother was a founder of BFT, it seemed a perfect fit.”

Covington was Birmingham literary royalty in 1996. During the 1980s, the Crestwood native had gone from appearing in literary journals to gracing the pages of The New Yorker. A National Endowment for the Arts fellowship gave her the freedom to write full time, and Covington quickly turned out four novels published by Simon and Schuster that earned her an impressive following. When the last of those four, The Last Hotel for Women, arrived in early 1996, it was so popular that reviews came from not only The New York Times Book Review and Publishers Weekly but from Entertainment Weekly and People magazines. At the same time, Vicki’s then-husband Dennis Covington was a finalist for the National Book Award for his now almost legendary Salvation on Sand Mountain.

The Last Hotel for Women takes place in 1961 as the Freedom Riders cross the Deep South on integrated interstate buses, defying Jim Crow laws that, while having been struck down by the Supreme Court, remained in place. The play focuses on the hotel run by the fictional white Fraley family, where Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, the ultimately infamous Eugene “Bull” Connor, holds court just as he did during the days when Dinah Fraley’s mother ran the hotel as a brothel. After the brutal reception the Freedom Riders get at the hands of Connor’s goon squad of Ku Klux Klansmen and like-minded lawmen, the tensions explode when big-hearted Dinah takes in one of the badly beaten Riders.

While it certainly looked as if BFT was poised to catch lightning in a bottle, the journey to opening night in 1996 was not particularly smooth.

“Vicki left a bunch of pages on our counter one night with a note that said, “I don’t think there’s a play in here,” Haden Marsh remembers. “And Randy just got down to work. The play was evolving daily, drastically.” Distilling the 300-plus pages of the book into a well-structured theatre piece was challenge enough, but the material was intensely personal to Marsh; there was plenty of his own life in the story, as Covington had based the Fraleys loosely on their own family.

Marsh also wondered about how audiences — and his own friends — would react to the walking, talking Bull Connor that Marsh was putting on stage.

“’Don’t you be too hard on old Bull.’ Randy got comments like that a lot, and not from the people you might think,” Haden said. “That’s what Randy’s stock broker said to him.”

Marsh had more than a passing concern for his safety. Haden remembers, “The night before the show opened, Randy said, ‘Do you think they’ll kill me tomorrow?’ And he wasn’t being funny.”

The 1996 production became a phenomenon. “We were overwhelmed by the ticket requests,” Stabler recalls. “In fact, we were so overbooked for the first show, I had to take off all of the arms of the chairs at BFT to give me room to add 20 seats.”

Every night was a sell-out, Stabler said, and every performance received long, boisterous standing ovations. “Randy and Vicki had come up with a fantastic piece of theatre.”

Miller, a close friend and theatre colleague of Marsh for decades, knew instinctively the show was essential to the celebratory season of mostly BFT revivals and that he was the best choice to direct Marsh’s adaptation and extend its legacy. Miller’s relationship with BFT as an actor and director goes back more than 30 years. Last year Miller opened the 40th anniversary season, starring as Coach in BFT’s revival of That Championship Season, a play in which Miller portrayed one of the basketball players when BFT first staged the drama in 1979.

The first read-through of the script takes place at the home of board president and Last Hotel for Women director, Edward Miller. Shown here are Amanda Maddox, James Ward, Edward Miller, Erin McMahon, Ryan Humpries, Logan Wester (son of Mindy, not a cast member) Mindy West Egan, and Duncan Miller.

Based on early readings of the new production of Last Hotel, Miller has assembled a crack ensemble, including a no-nonsense Amanda Maddux as down-to-earth, steely-spined Dinah and, in some bold casting against type, all-around good guy James Ward as Connor.

Using a fundamentally likeable actor like Ward for Connor underscores the play’s humanization of the iconic figure. As Haden Marsh says, “Connor was not a hated man in town at the time. He was popular with many, many people. He was somebody’s best friend’s father.” She adds, “It’s important to remember that change happened one family at a time.”

Haden pointed out one aspect of the play that recaptures a part of Birmingham history that is largely unknown or forgotten. “One of the things the story does well is show how important industrial league baseball was in Birmingham at the time,” she says. “It was a very big deal. It was what you did in the summer.” White and blacks tenuously shared the same ball fields for these games, under the watchful eye of Conner and others determined to prevent any “mixing.”

Seeing the ingrained racism of the early 1960s staged up close and personally will no doubt have the power Last Hotel had when it first appeared. David Seale, who plays one of the stars of the industrial league, puts it this way, “It’s too easy for us to assume those feelings are totally in the past. That’s why this play is still so vital. You can see how far we still have to go.”

For Miller, The Last Hotel for Women production he is directing is a salute to BFT’s illustrious history as well as an homage to a dear friend he greatly admired who helped create a great deal of that history.

While completely supportive of Miller’s production, “I’m more ambivalent,” Haden said. “The [1996] production meant so much to me on so many levels,” including having her own young daughter playing the Fraley daughter, a character based on the nine-year-old Vicki Marsh Covington. “It was an amazing experience, and I was ambivalent about going there again.”

The revival of The Last Hotel for Women opens June 14, with performances continuing through June 30.

3 Responses to “The Last Hotel for Women”

  1. Janelle Cochrane says:

    Great article!!! Always proud to be a part of Birmingham Festival Theatre! A theatre company that disproved the “you’ll never work in this town again” (meaning theatre), often said to performers who dared to be in a show at BFT.

  2. Lee Griner says:

    Can hardly wait for this show. Thanks, Tom, for the insights.

  3. Sandra Gillis says:

    I recently finished reading Four Spirits by Sena Jeter Naslund, who taught at Miles College during this period of time. I so look forward to seeing this play – your article makes me want to see it even more. Thanks…

Leave a Reply