If you've ever wondered about the strange shape life tends to take over many decades, you'll want to see Lark Eden, Natalie Symons' loving portrayal of three female friends from childhood to old age, currently playing at the New American Theater in St. Pete.
What Symons — a local writer who also acts in the play — knows is that time is unpredictable, that it gives and takes according to no certain logic, that it fulfills dreams with one hand and dashes hopes with the other, and that in our struggle to see it through, our friendships are essential. If she doesn't see more deeply than this — if she has no theories as to why life works out this way — still she captures the feel of human experience so expertly, she provokes us to just the sort of philosophizing she and her characters eschew.
Why does Mary find it so hard to get into a good relationship while Thelma marries quickly and produces babies at a blue streak? Why does Emily, the most lyrical character, fail to comfort her own husband, while Mary, the most seemingly cynical, proves herself the most unshakable caregiver? As the years go by in Lark Eden, everything changes but the love the three friends have for one another, and, as one of the characters points out, that love makes them an ideal family. Mountains may rise and fall, but the certainty of care waiting patiently in the letterbox is a powerful sustaining force. Even old age can be softened when there are friends who go there with you.
The play is structured as a series of letters from one woman to the next, beginning when Emily sends out an invitation to her 12th birthday party, and ending when the friends are in their 80s and approaching death. The characters are played by three actors — Jeni Bond as Emily, Roxanne Fay as Mary, and author Symons as Thelma — who stand in front of music stands and "read" one missive after the next, sometimes covering years in a matter of moments.
We learn quickly about the differences that distinguish each friend. Thelma is the religious one who believes that God has a plan for each one of them, Emily is the poet, who feels deeply and struggles with faithlessness, and Mary is the prankster, who loves to shock the others with an honesty that sometimes borders on cruelty. They all start out in Lark Eden, Georgia, but events ultimately move them around the map, and it's only in their letters that they share one another's lives.
And those lives are very different. Early on, Mary's father dies, and increasingly the young woman becomes caregiver to both her mother and ailing grandmother (whom she refers to as "Old Pruneface"}. Thelma marries and starts producing baby after baby, while Emily, who cried so tenderly for the sailors killed at Pearl Harbor, seems like she'll always be on her own.
But if there's one principle behind the lives of all three women, it's that flux is everything. In the years to come there are marriages and a miscarriage and a boy who didn't go to Penn State — "he went to the state pen." There's depression, early grandmotherhood, adultery, and a son in Vietnam. One of the women becomes a widow, another gets fat, and all get old. And there are deaths: of a new husband, of a despondent son. Making it all bearable is the women's friendship. And their wisdom. And their humor.
The three actresses are superb. Roxanne Fay is wonderful as Mary, the mischievous truth-teller whose heart is a lot bigger than she'll admit, and whose moral will is an embarrassment she keeps denying. Jeni Bond as Emily is lyrical and lovely, worried repeatedly that she's losing her religion, but full of good intentions and quick to fall back on poetry. And author Symons as religious Thelma is at first comic and then tragic, a baby-maker who seems to create her brood almost unconsciously, and then has to survive when one of them takes his own life.
Director Karla Hartley brings out even the smallest details in the emotional lives of these women, and the careful sound design, by Brian M. Becker, Hartley, and Symons, helps us understand instantly when it's Christmas, when it's wartime, and when it's a moment of shared solemnity. There's no set, and that's just fine.
The bottom line: There's another fine playwright in the Tampa Bay area. Her name is Symons, and she's truly talented. Check out her work — and bring your best friend.