By Bill Oser, Theatre Critic Sunday, Nov 1, 2015
Last season I missed a production at freeFall Theatre called Buffalo Kings by Natalie Symons, which turned out to be a major mistake. The play was very well received and since that time Ms. Symons has positioned herself much more firmly in my radar. When I received notice that an earlier play of hers, Lark Eden was having a reading at Brown's Theater Lab, part of Florida Studio Theatre, I decided to attend. I am very glad I did.
Lark Eden is a woman's play, about the life-long friendship of three women from the fictional town of Lark Eden, GA. It begins when the girls are 8 and moves swiftly through their lives ending when one dies at age 80+. It is an emotionally rich play, and therefore I believe it will have appeal to men as well. After starting out in Lark Eden, Mary relocates to Huntsville, AL with her mother which is often referred to in the play as "Happy Town" while Emily transfers to Pinellas Park, FL. The third character, Thelma remains a life-long Lark Eden resident. The play is referred to as an "epistolary play" which means carried on by letters which is how these ladies communicate for most of their lives. I see that there have been full productions in several locations and I wonder what effect that might have on rapid pacing of the play.
Still I can imagine that visual help in seeing these ladies change over a seventy year period might be a plus. The presentation as a reader's play is also very effective. I saw a review from a full production that complained that the ladies are mostly defined by the men or other people in their lives. While I can't disagree with this assessment, it rings true for me as women of that long ago, pre-feminist era were often more tied to the wishes and choices of their men or families than they might be now. Each character starts out as a bit of a basic type; Mary is the care taker who sacrifices her own life; Thelma is the strongly church bound lady and Emily is stuck in a less than successful marriage. Once the characters take wing, they are written with such emotional honesty that they are not locked into "type." While it is true that they get locked into their lives, they still have the ability to care about and for each other and it is these responses to crises in each other’s lives that make the play so riveting. The next time a theater company wants to schedule one of the well-worn women's plays (think Steel Magnolias) they would do well to consider Lark Eden. Now that Jane Fonda and Lilly Tomlin have reconnected professionally, perhaps they might like to rejoin Dolly Parton for a film version of this wonderful story. I see Lilly as Mary, Jane as Emily and Dolly as Thelma. The characters are so well drawn that they would be a bonanza for many fine actresses, as they are playable by people of varied ages.
The reading stars 3 of the area's finest actresses, Roxanne Fay as Mary, Natalie Symons as Emily and Katherine Michelle Tanner as Thelma. All three played parts that were similar to parts they have played in other successful vehicles. Roxanne Fay has made a career of playing crusty ladies (Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), and Katherine Michelle has been touring in The Amish Project playing multiple characters, many of them with that same strong sense of faith. Natalie Symons played a role in Reborning that had some commonality with her Emily is Lark Eden. I hope that does not diminish the emotional connection each shows with her character. At the end several members of the audience looked around at others to acknowledge the shared tears streaming down faces.
I had spent some pre-curtain time with 3 lovely ladies who had come down from St. Petersburg, fans of Natalie from her freeFall days. After the play we all acknowledged how strongly the play had affected us. One of them asked me if I thought this play would be well received by an older audience. After some thought, I ventured that this play should be good for all but very young audiences, but now I think that almost everyone will find something to connect to, there is so much honesty in the play. I asked Ms. Symons if the play had been based on a previous source and she informed me that no, it is an entirely original work. I stand in awe of that, it is such a fine play.