Kim Powers’ Solo Play Spotlights Versatile Vivian Vance’s Career
by Patricia L. Morin
“Sidekicked” spotlights vibrant Vivian Vance’s feelings about playing down-to-earth Ethel Mertz, second fiddle to Lucille Ball on the I Love Lucy show.
It is the last performance of the show. We are drawn into Designer Michael Ross’s realistic 50s Hollywood dressing room, complete with racks of colorful costumes, shelves of animal figurines, and an old dressing table. Photos of Lucy, Desi, Ethel, and Fred hang on the side wall.
At a small round table, Vivian Vance (versatile Libby Oberlin) talks to an unseen psychiatrist. She is confiding her deepest thoughts and feelings, while we listen.
Oberlin captures the heart and soul of Vance’s roller-coaster life. In a soft green robe, her hair in curlers, Oberlin enacts all four characters, switching effortlessly between them. Her hilarious impressions sum up the TV show’s appeal—performed before live audiences. Spot-on early 60s costumes bring truth to her characterizations.
Now that the show is ending, Vance ponders, “Should I play Ethel in a sequel, “The Fred and Ethel Show”? But that would put her, yet again, second to Bill Frawley. Frawley, 22 years her elder, plays her husband; but Vance dislikes Frawley, who once called her “a stack of doorknobs.”
When the offer comes, a frustrated Vance exclaims:
I’m not Ethel and I’m sick and tired of playing her. So there! But who am I without her? I’m not a wife anymore.
I’m not a mother. …I’m tired of being second banana. I wanna be first banana. I wanna be more than just Lucy’s sidekick.
I’ve been side-kicked to death.
From the time her father left her waiting in the car while he visited a sex worker, to her mother’s rejection when she became an actress, Vance has struggled with her identity. Early in her career, she even had a breakdown during a show. She keeps her name and address on a piece of paper in case she loses her way.
Vance loved and hated Lucille Ball. Ball, a conceited, antagonistic warlord, pulled off Vivian’s fake eyelashes because she thought Vance would up-stage her. Ball mandated that Vance gain ten pounds to look dowdy. Lucy always wins.
For those who have to play second fiddle with spouses, jobs, family, and even friends, it is easy to empathize with Vance. The concessions we make, and the struggle to maintain our sense of self, can be exasperating.
In Act Two, Vance plays both roles in an argument with Ball. Oberlin’s powerful, dramatic performance turns her solo into a dynamic duo—a brilliant debate with herself.
Vance’s life is worthy of this play, with no second bananas.
Oberlin holds my interest throughout, and I enjoyed learning about this talented actor who really helped put Lucille Ball on the map. Without Ethel, Lucy would be merely a slapstick ditz driving her husband crazy.
On the stage wall and in the lobby, we see photos from the show. They transport us to that zany world, thanks to Vivian Vance’s charm. Join Oberlin in this eye-opening peek into the backstage dynamics created by the Queens of early sit-coms.
“Sidekicked” by Kim Powers, directed by Michael Ross, lighting designed by Wayne Hovey, costumes by Michael Ross, at Sonoma Arts Live, Sonoma, California. Info: SonomaArtsLive.org – to February 19, 2023.
Cast: Libby Oberlin (Vivian Vance)
Banner photo: Libby Oberlin. Photos by Miller Oberlin