I know Emily Wilhoit as the head of the League of Charleston Theaters. I have quoted her in news stories, because she’s the spokesperson for local stage companies. But I had never seen her perform.
I missed Gypsy and I missed the last time she and David Mandel did Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years. By coincidence, I have seen her husband Josh perform, but not Wilhoit. I didn’t have reason to think she was a bad actress and yet I didn’t have reason to anticipate anything more from her than a warm personality, a kind smile, and a capable administrator of an important nonprofit organization.
Yesterday, I had a chance to see her, and from now on, things will be different. In The Last Five Years, Wilhoit plays Kathy, a struggling actress married to a more successful husband and novelist, Jamie. The story of their failed marriage is told in two directions at once. Forward from Jamie’s perspective. Backward from Kathy’s. It sounds a lot more cerebral than it is. Mandel and Wilhoit make it look and sound easy and natural.
Kathy is the role that for me confirmed Wilhoit’s status as one to watch. Though she told me later that Wednesday’s wasn’t her best (I sense a little modesty there), it still demonstrated an emerging actress with powerful singing and a strong and often commanding stage presence. Her training in musical theater was evident as she pushed the story forward (or backward, as it were) in song. She was earnest, funny, ironic, and doubtful — all of these things if the song, and the illustration of her character’s nature within that particular song, called for it.
Pulling off envy and hope isn’t easy. But she did it. One song calls for her to express pride in her husband’s success (his first book publication) and pride in being a part of that success. In the same song, she struggles to find comfort in that, because to acknowledge the reality of her own stalled career is too much to bear. Besides, she has enough to deal with while touring the godforsaken Ohio River Valley with a gay midget named Carl, an evangelical “former” stripper, and other eccentric theatricals. Which leads me to praise her comedic chops, too. There’s a song in which she provides an inner monologue while auditioning for a Broadway show that expresses the fear of anyone trying to make it with the fear of anyone trying to build a family life. It’s both funny and bittersweet — you care for her and you laugh at her. It’s both at once.