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THEATER : From Crisis, Truth : Suzanne Wesley's 'Conversations With the Living' shows women dealing with fallout from divorce.

April 02, 1993|JANICE ARKATOV | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Janice Arkatov writes about theater for Valley Life

"Suzanne has a strong voice--not a strident one--and she's not afraid to use it," proclaims Actors Company artistic director Michael Eugene Fairman, whose staging of Suzanne Wesley's "Conversations With the Living" makes its world premiere tonight at the Burbank Little Theatre.

"She feels very strongly about these things," the director continues, "and I didn't want her to equivocate how she felt. We're always looking for people who want to make a bold statement. Suzanne takes a 'simple' subject like divorce, and shows how it can be a large, rippling event in a woman's life--and as a result, we see divorce in a new way."

The writer describes her seven-character comedy-drama on a trio of thirtysomething divorcees as a story of "friends becoming best friends. Three women approaching midlife crises find their lives falling apart. What happens in the course of the play is that they start finding and speaking the truth. I think people really need to communicate to be good friends."

Wesley does not count herself as a model for any of the women--"although," she says, "all of the characters, male and female, are a part of me"--but was initially inspired by the experiences of a New York friend going through a divorce from her attorney spouse. "Sheila was the reason for this," Wesley says, using the character's name. "I wanted to write about what's happening with the legal system."

Next, she created the character of Frankie.

"Frankie's the strongest," Wesley says. "She's been the caretaker for everyone: first her parents, then her husband. Now she's divorced and she's got a career, but it's not what she really wants. She could aspire to more." As for Madelyn, "she's also a very strong lady, a writer," Wesley says. "Ten years ago she lost her daughter in a car accident; now she's on her way to becoming an alcoholic."

There are four male roles as well: Frankie's love interest Zachary, Madelyn's ex-husband Arthur, Sheila's ex-husband Bill, and country club bartender Mitch. But the focus is definitely on the women--their fears and their hurt. "Frankie has had suicides in her family, and she flirts with the subject, talks about a nervous breakdown," Wesley says. "You can see her crying out, 'Help me.' "

Yet all is not doom and gloom. "It sounds like a serious show, but it's not," stresses the playwright, who's been married 21 years and is the mother of 4 1/2-year-old Sara. "There are a lot of funny moments. I really like using humor; it seems to be a thread in my work. These people are using humor to cover their pain, keep their secrets to themselves."

"Conversations" is the actress-turned-writer's fifth play, her fourth production. In the mid-'80s, her "Beautiful Lights" was done locally at Actors Alley and at Polaris Repertory in New York City. Her "Flickers" was staged at the American Theatre of Actors in New York. A native of Northern California, she attended UCLA and received her bachelor's and master's degrees in acting.

"I'd always been involved in acting, but now it's not something I aspire to," she says firmly. "I guess I got burned out. I just knew I was going toward something positive with the writing. And it has been. I love going to rehearsals and seeing the actors--I get so much enjoyment watching them do it. But there's no need to do it myself. It's a real healthy turnaround. I love writing, being able to sit down every day at a computer and work. It feels like a natural progression."

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "Conversations With the Living."

Location: Burbank Little Theatre, 1100 Clark Ave. in George Izay Park, Burbank.

Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 2 p.m. Sundays. Closes May 16.

Price: $8 to $12.

Call: (818) 954-9858.

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