by Natalie Symons
Directed by Karla Hartley
New American Theater
183 2nd Ave., St. Petersburg, 727-575-9241
Sept. 22-26, 28-Oct. 9, 2011
(Sept. 27 at Home Resource, Sarasota)

Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker

Lark Eden covers the lives intertwined through friendship of three Southern women from their final high school days, 1935, to about 2010. Natalie Symons started it as a novel. To tell it via all three voices, though, she decided--influenced by Love Letters---to make it a play. From the narration that sets its little-town origin and the women's relationship to it and each other, Lark Eden is still a novel, an epistolary one. It's delivered in the basic theatrical form of group oral interpretation of literature: Readers Theater. Director Karla Hartley even places the interpreters behind stands containing their scripts, and though they gesture, speak emotionally and occasionally face one another, they do not engage in physical or dramatic meetings or interaction. Not that Emily, Mary, Thelma as well as episodes and people in their lives aren't well drawn and involving: but the women tell us about their actions and each other rather than show. Because Symons commendably individualizes their voices and characters, while her imagery is often vivid and humor engaging, the narrative holds our interest overall. This, despite wearying repetition of devices to indicate such things as passing of time (like Christmas card messages and worries about wars), frustrations over being stuck caring for relations (crude physical descriptions of husband, grandmother, mother), and plans for the women to get together for a gals-only reunion. There's also a descent into almost pure melodrama after intermission.

As Emily, the moderate (and often moderator between the others), Jeni Bond projects the sweetest of dispositions. She's a would-be poet, a worrier over sad world events who doesn't wed until (!) 28, and to a travelling salesman. Despite disappointments in her personal life, Bond's Emily comes off credibly as the one who retires early to Florida, but to work in a deli, and finds happiness with her dog . Playwright Symons confidently voices Thelma, for whom absorption in her religion makes her see everything as God's plan, though perhaps working its ways mysteriously. She's the first to marry because she liked being wanted by the man who asked and she felt he'd be a good husband, father and thus provider. With all her talk of their having children and her church activities, along with prayers for and exhortations to her girlfriends, there's little mention of any tribulations. Wide-eyed Symons suggests in her calm manner that Thelma is mindless of roiling problems or trying to cover them up beneath a surface of often cited faith. Mary is the tart-tongued rebel against convention in Roxanne Fay's humorous yet penetrating portrayal. She's the good bad girl stuck with caring for a prune-faced, toothless, one-legged grandma and a complaining mother who keeps trying to hook a man for Mary. Roxanne deftly delivers wisdom through wise cracks, but makes it clear that Mary can only flee responsibilities or defy customary morality so far. She's the nearest thing to a dramatic antagonist.

Playwright Symons and director Hartley forge a trio who recall dramatized steel magnolias yet appear really more like roses, a mix of colorful soft petals, strong stems and thorns. They should smell sweet, whether on a stage or in the pages of a book, to a lot of southern ladies and maybe their gentlemen too. If I were Mary, though, I would sign off on the two hour and ten minute staged interpretation as if on an ironic Greeting from her Happyland!

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