By Peter Nason, Theatre Critic Sunday, Nov 1, 2015
There's a lot to be said for the power of simplicity. Sure, I'm as bowled over as the next person when it comes to elaborateNicholas Nickleby costumes, fabulous Wicked sets, or creative lighting in shows like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. But simplicity works as well, many times even stronger, because the ultimate power lies in our own imaginations to fill in the pieces. A.R. Gurney's Love Letters, with its "Reader's Theatre" approach, certainly fits this bill, as does Natalie Symons more recent LARK EDEN. AlthoughLove Letters and LARK EDEN are similar in their use of the "staged reading" slant of a sentimental work that spans decades, LARK EDEN is actually quite deeper, featuring three strong, wounded women who age from childhood to their eighties.
LARK EDEN, which has been performed since 2011, has also been compared to Steel Magnolias, which isn't too far off of the mark; but it's also quite a bit like a Spark Notes version of Same Time, Next Year, or a variation of The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, because it covers many decades and deals with particular historical events of the day (in this case, Pearl Harbor, the assassination of JFK, and Vietnam).
I recently had the pleasure of attending a performance at the Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota (although the show was not an official FST production). The power of simplicity is apparent from the start--nothing onstage but three music stands, three scripts, and three actresses. Occasional sound effects and musical selections are played throughout to signify time changes, and there are occasional lighting cues, but it's the three actresses, onstage, reading from the bound script, that make the show come alive.
And if you're doing LARK EDEN, you can't get much better than Roxanne Fay, Natalie Symons and Katherine Michelle Tanner to bring it to life.
Told through letters, notes and cards, the play centers around three girls--Mary, Emily and Thelma--in the small Georgia town, Lark Eden. We follow them through their triumphs and losses, their joys and loneliness, their wedding highs and funeral lows. And their bond stays strong through the years, though their intentions of getting together keep following the John Lennon "life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans" path.
Roxanne Fay proves once again why she is an area favorite. Her characterization of Mary is a scene-stealing wonder, full of life and heartbreak in equal amounts, and always there for the others. She's the honest one, lively and blunt, with no b.s. And her journey with her prune-faced grandmother and troubled mother is a thing of beauty. (It is to Symons' credit that we can readily visualize many of the offstage characters.) And every time Fay's Mary announces "Greetings from the House of Happy!" the audience collectively smiles at her damned likability.
Symons plays the more difficult role of Emily--sort of the middle child of the three ladies (she stands in the center, bookended by Mary and Thelma). She's the steady one, quite cynical and at times her very own Debbie Downer. Still, she's a poet at heart, and the one the audience can identify with most. Her tales of life with Clark Gable (a dog, not the actor) is like a mini-version of Marley and Me, and as sadly moving as that comparison suggests.
Last, we have Thelma, the child-rearing religious one, a veritable baby machine, and Tanner is just stunning here. She starts off rather forced in her holier-than-though attitude, fake smiling and piling on the religious platitudes, but then she grows and becomes a full, three dimensional character. Again, it is to Symons' credit that the overtly religious one of the group is not played as a dolt for 80 straight minutes, and that her Christianity, although questioned at times, is not made as a reason to attack.
Tanner's last scenes are just spellbinding and heartbreaking. She takes Symons' exquisite words and runs with them, and the audience can't help but succumb to tears. For the record, it wasn't just the ladies in the audience who were wiping away their tears; the men, many of whom were dragged there by their wives, were too.
Symons is a quite a playwright, a major talent, and many of her lines and descriptions (such as the grandmother's one "milky eye") resonated with me. Sometimes the words become a bit too poetic for my tastes, more novel-like than theatrical, but her voice is authentic. As she proved with The Buffalo Kings (performed at freeFall earlier this year), she has a way with dialogue and offbeat characters. (Even though LARK EDEN is set in the South, including Florida, there is a Buffalo joke thrown in for good measure.) Symons is also quite quirky, with an obvious adoration of dark humor, and that adds a proper edge to the work (otherwise, it might be just too morose at certain points or too saccharin in others).
The actual historical events that Symons chooses to deal with seem too obvious and somewhat clichéd. (Perhaps we should be thankful that she doesn't include Neil Armstrong walking on the moon along with Pearl Harbor and John Kennedy's death.) Some details are perfectly suited for the time periods (like getting up to change the television channel, remember having to do that before remote controls became a necessity in our lives?) Vietnam plays a big part, but there is no sense and no real acknowledgement of the Civil Rights struggle that these women would certainly have witnessed, especially since the show takes place in the South from the 1930's to the 2000's.
Still, I bought in to the characters and to the simplicity of the production. Where else can a mere closing of a script cause an audience to break down crying? And yes, I was one of the men in the audience wiping away those tears. It's a powerful show scribed by a powerful voice that needs to be heard quite often. LARK EDEN is perennially performed in the Bay area by these fine actresses, and if you ever get a chance, you must see it. (It was only performed at FST for two nights, October 29th and 30th, when I saw it.) I actually prefer it to Love Letters and Same Time, Next Year. LARK EDEN thankfully doesn't feature one of the ladies turning hippy for no apparent reason the way STNY does, although the Vietnam angle is overused in both.
Rumor has it that Symons has finished a new play and is currently workshopping it. This is exciting news. I hope it opens soon, because Natalie Symons is one playwright that I will follow anywhere.