Rick Hammerly’s feet are killing him.
“Four of my toes: bandaged, because I have blisters from the shoes,” the veteran actor-director sighed. “How am I going to get through this? Ibuprofen and Epsom salts—my body is like, ‘What are you doing to us?’”
What he is doing is playing drag queen Miss Tracy Mills in Round House Theatre’s latest production, “The Legend of Georgia McBride.” And while dressing in drag can be, well, a drag, the recent Helen Hayes award winner says it is also an opportunity to bring a message of inclusion, acceptance and optimism — and a chance to get audiences dancing in the aisles. “I will say, there’s something empowering about drag. When you put on those clothes, there’s something that makes you feel so invincible.
“When I hit the stage as Tracy, I light up a little,” he added. “There’s something strong and powerful in more feminine characters; it’s exciting and liberating.”
Drag seems to be having a moment right now, with shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (now in its 10th season) bringing the ancient art into the mainstream. And this Tom Story-directed production of Matthew Lopez’s 2015 play — about a dive bar in the Florida panhandle that reinvents itself with a fierce and fabulous new stage show — is capitalizing on that momentum.
“For the gay community, it’s old hat, part of the culture,” said Hammerly, a D.C. native and producing artistic director of the theater collective Factory 449. “It’s just now starting to be more mainstream, and that’s huge.”
“But let’s face it,” he added, “usually under that drag are entertaining gay men.”
And gay icons. Hammerly likens the character he plays to one of the most flamboyant, exuberant characters ever to take the stage. “Tracy is very ‘Auntie Mame,’” he mused. “She’s constantly looking to better the lives of the people around her and make sure everything’s OK for everybody.” Tracy talks about the need to find your better self,” he said. “She has been through confusion and self-doubt, and she’s ready to enjoy the rest of her life.
“She knows who she is, she’s happy about it, and she wants other people to feel that way,” he said.
So, regardless of how his feet feel at the end of the day, Hammerly believes there is a worthwhile message to be found behind the big drag numbers and dazzling costumes. The show is a fantasy, he pointed out, a fairy tale.
“It’s about acceptance of who we all are and what we all do,” he said. “We’re in a time where we’re looking to celebrate everybody for who they are — trans rights, women’s rights — we’re celebrating the different aspects of people, that they’re all good and they all belong.”
In “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” a group of disparate people become a family, as Hammerly’s character takes under his wing a straight Elvis impersonator who switches to drag to support his wife and child. That character is played by Zach Powell, who at 32 is shrugging off the discomfort of high heels and waist cinchers. In fact, as a Shakespearean actor with a master’s degree in classical acting from Illinois State University, Powell feels like moving to drag is “not too far a jump.
“Shakespeare wrote so many plays where women play men,” the Kansas native pointed out. “A lot of the companies I’ve worked for were not too concerned about casting gender-specific roles. Also, Shakespeare’s larger-than-life; it’s a heightened type of material.”
As is “Georgia McBride,” Powell said. Indeed, the play follows the arc of Powell’s character, Casey, as he goes from struggling Elvis impersonator to sensational drag queen with the help of the improvised family he finds among the wigs and sequins.
“Casey is a straight white man who learns that he loves being a drag queen, and that he really identifies more as Georgia McBride,” Powell observed. “That doesn’t make him gay, doesn’t make him anything he’s not. It just opens up all of the best parts of his personality.”
And much like becoming Georgia McBride “opened up Casey’s eyes, as a ‘good old southern boy’ to a world he had no experience with,” Powell hopes to open the eyes of audience members to the wonderful world of drag.
“There’s certainly a heightened sense of comedy and reality,” said Powell. “It’s not realism; it’s magical realism and we ask the audience to come along on this ride that’s not 100 percent believable — but you want it to be.
“It’s a really feel-good, heartwarming show.”
Not an easy one. The show features elaborate costumes and plenty of them, and the actors rely heavily on the behind-the-scenes crew to make sure they’re flawless for their numbers.
“Between almost every scene, I have a quick change, as do most of the actors in the show,” Powell said. “The dressers deserve a gold medal — they’re earning their money!”
While he concedes that “it’s certainly easier to dance in my Elvis shoes than in the six-inch Jessica Simpson heels that I wear for one of the numbers,” Powell is enthusiastic about this adventure in drag.
“I will say it’s kind of fun,” he said. “At first I thought, ‘This is impossible!’ Now it’s like, ‘Sure! Give me those crazy stiletto heels. I’ll make it work!”
“The Legend of Georgia McBride” runs through July 1 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. Performances start at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets start at $30, with discounts available with ID to senior citizens, military and veterans. A $4.50 service fee and $1.50 facility fee apply to all single ticket purchases. Call 240-644-1100 or visit www.RoundHouseTheatre.org.