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Singular talent Eva DeVirgilis tackles her own story in new solo effort

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It takes a special performer to pull off a one-person show. Not only must you be engaging onstage, but if you fall into any one of acting's pitfalls — flub a line, lose a prop, miss a cue — you're on your own, kid.

Add to that the difficulty of remembering all that text, a possible variety of accents and wardrobe changes and the occasional fussy audience, and you get a sense of the difficulties awaiting the lone performer.

All this to say there are few who can navigate a one-person show successfully, and Eva DeVirgilis is one of them. In Jane Wagner's "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe" she winningly portrayed a variety of roles, including a bag lady, a prostitute and a lady who lunches. In Kim Yaged's "Hypocrites and Strippers" she played a lesbian who loved exotic dancers.

But with her new one-woman show "In My Chair" we have something different: a story of DeVirgilis' own.

Five years ago, DeVirgilis gave a TEDxRVAWomen talk about beauty, female empowerment and self-acceptance based on her experience as a professional makeup artist. Noting that nearly every woman who sat in her makeup chair would immediately apologize for their appearance, DeVirgilis' 11-minute talk about societal standards and inner beauty became a hit online. DeVirgilis received thousands of messages from women around the globe following her talk, leading her to pack up her makeup chair and meet some of them. It's these stories that she dramatizes here.

Expanding on her message, DeVirgilis portrays women from Malaysia, Thailand, the Caribbean and the United Kingdom. In one instance, this takes the form of rousing a group of women to consider running for political office. In others, it's as simple as providing a dash of makeup to women and telling them how beautiful they are.

DeVirgilis remains a consummate entertainer with a flair for accents and physical characterization. When she portrays multiple women from the same country, there's never a question of who is speaking. And her portrayals come off as respectful, aside from her possibly objectionable depiction of a deaf person.

She also showcases a self-awareness about what she's doing, exploring how she feels about her own appearance and questioning if she's simply upholding society's beauty standards through her work as a makeup artist. For the former, she personifies her own demons as Norma, a naysaying older woman with a twisted body. An answer to the latter is provided by a gender scholar in the UK who notes that you can be a feminist and still wear makeup. It's perhaps immaterial to the conversation; how many people recognize gender as a social construct but still portray a binary interpretation of it themselves?

Directed by Lisa Rothe, the show is undeniably fun, and the staging elements — including Robbie Kinter's sound design, Tennessee Dixon's scenic and projection design, and Andrew Bonniwell's lighting — work together seamlessly in service to DeVirgilis' story.

Still, there are a few contradictions in the show: DeVirgilis emphasizes the word "choice" when describing the decision to wear hijab or makeup, then stresses the word again when talking about sex workers' occupational pursuits in Bangkok. Even though she appears to be critical of the idea that sex work is a choice for these women, it's unclear if the parallel use of "choice" in both contexts is intentional.

While initially noting that her husband has his own Norma counterpart named Norman, he's portrayed later in the show as having never experienced shame about his physical appearance. And finally — and perhaps most contradictory to the show's meaning — is her portrayal of Norma as a decrepit old hag. If we're supposed to question the connection between external and internal beauty, this interpretation reinforces the idea that evil people are physically ugly and good people are physically beautiful.

Even with these concerns, DeVirgilis and Rothe have crafted a heartwarming and engaging show about self-acceptance and female empowerment that probes past the skin-deep.

Cadence Theatre Company with Virginia Repertory Theatre's "In My Chair" plays through March 31 at Virginia Rep's Theatre Gym at 114 W. Broad St. For information, visit va-rep.org or call 282-2620.

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