Sometimes the most impassioned and life-changing relationship in a woman’s life isn’t a romantic one. It is a friendship. Lark Eden, now on stage at Theater Schmeater, captures the enduring love shared by a trio of women in two touching acts. And, remarkably, it’s done not through dramatically wrought dialogue or high-tech stage magic, but through the simple act of reading their correspondence to the audience.
Opening in Lark Eden, Georgia, deep in the heart of the Great Depression, the play tracks the lifelong friendship of three women as they grow from giggling 12-year-old schoolgirls to old women well into their 80s. The play, written by Natalie Symons, had its world premiere at Theater Schmeater last April and returned to the Seattle stage on March 16. The script is ambitious in scope, but grounded in the milestones of real lives fully lived.
When we meet Emily (Katie Driscoll), Mary (Michelle Chiachiere) and Thelma (Teri Lazzara), they are a trio of exuberant pre-teens coming of age in a tiny town that doesn’t show up on most maps. It’s a town that may have a traffic sign reading 15 miles an hour, but everyone seems to speed on through anyways. And indeed, all three gradually drift away as the exigencies of life begin to work on each of them.
Symons seizes the opportunities offered by the script’s epistolary style early in the play. Her young heroines swap notes in class, exchange birthday invitations, and read from earnest Christmas cards. Unfortunately, the playwright seems to lose her creative edge as the women age, just when the technical modes of disseminating the written word explode with tantalizing possibilities. There are no faxes, no emails, no text messages, no grandchild-designed webpages shared among these friends. Just letters, cards, and more letters, which occasionally reference phone calls that the audience is not allowed to eavesdrop on.
Though the actors are ensconced behind music stands and their lines are delivered directly to the audience with barely any on-stage eye contact, Driscoll, Chiachiere, and Lazzara create a fully realized triad of friendship. As directed by Symons, their progression from childhood camaraderie to senescent companionship is seamless. They bond and bicker in equal measure, and it always feels genuine.
The script is linguistically rich, diving deep into a lyrical Southern patois that is charming and easy on the ears. It’s never just hot in Lark Eden, it's "hotter than hammered hell." However, Symons wrestles with both the plot and with establishing authentic evolution in her characters. The three women begin the play as 12-year-olds who deliver lines that sound as if they were written for 28-year-olds. This continues unchecked, and by the time they are in their mid-80s, they still sound as if they are 28.
It's not surprising, then, that the most resonant and high stakes point in Lark Eden comes when the characters actually are 28. That’s when girlish dreams are finally within reach or are crucially dying, maturity is a palpable presence to be embraced or desperately avoided, and a sense of emotional truth hangs over each of the friends. Devout Christian Thelma is living what she thought would be the perfect life as she tends to her husband’s needs and pumps out babies. Amateur poet Emily is working at a gas station and pinning all her hopes on the love of a fickle traveling salesman. And witty Mary’s wisecracks are growing increasingly frantic as she works two jobs to support her grotesquely decaying grandmother and her depressive widowed mother. Through it all, and though separated by hundreds of miles, the friends remain intricately connected by diligently writing to each other. “It’s remarkable when you think about it, that we’ve been friends for so many years,” Thelma marvels. Remarkable, and very moving.
As the women age, their genuine emotional connection holds strong, but the stakes of the plot gradually diminish. By the play’s final curtain, it’s hard to put a finger on what the dramatic question of Lark Eden actually was. As a general affirmation of the power and endurance of female friendship (and unabashed tearjerker), it succeeds. But the overall narrative reads like one big obituary for an entire generation of now-elderly women. Drained of the more intriguing facets of individual experience, it boils down to girlhood fun, the initial thrill of marriage, the trials of motherhood, and the inevitable laundry list of deaths. There is nothing wanting in the quiet nobility of such a biography. But there’s nothing particularly theatrical about it, either.
While there are few surprises in the play, Symons’ talent for capturing the authenticity of both the language and emotional core of her characters ultimately renders the lack of "happenings" in Lark Eden inconsequential. You may have heard the generic histories of similar "salt of the earth" American women countless times before, but never so respectfully or so affectingly.
If you go: Lark Eden is on stage at Theater Schmeater through April 14. $15-$23. For more information, visit www.schmeater.org.