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Happy Ending for Drama : * David Steen won acclaim for his debut play, 'A Gift from Heaven.' Five years later, he is involved in the movie version, being filmed in Agoura.

June 25, 1993|RAY LOYND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Ray Loynd regularly covers theater for The Times.

When the Appalachian mountain play "A Gift from Heaven" originally opened at the Chamber Theatre in Studio City five years ago, the event was so inauspicious that the drama nearly closed after a few weeks. Critics ignored the show; the public didn't know it existed, and novice playwright-producer-actor David Steen began packing his bags to go home to Tennessee.

Then, a week before the show was scheduled to fold, the first reviewer showed up (from the L.A. Times), and suddenly Steen was unpacking his bags.

"A remarkable playwriting debut," said the ecstatic Times review, and the notice flowered into a bandwagon of subsequent critical roses and public acclaim. The play took off, ran for a remarkable six months, and was en route to off-Broadway under the auspices of producer Elliot Martin and director Jose Quintero, who had both seen the show at the Chamber.

"Then Martin and Quintero stopped speaking to each other in a battle of egos," Steen said, and "A Gift from Heaven" dropped out of sight for good.

But for those who cherish happy Hollywood endings, cut to sunrise and a dusty ranch in Agoura. Straight from the Chamber Theater to the big screen, so to speak, the cameras are rolling on "A Gift from Heaven."

In a hot shack so remote that buckets of water have to be carried up a hill to the cast and crew, the backwoods-family drama is wrapping up production this week as an independent theatrical motion picture--a hometown success story particularly rare for having started out in a 99-seat Equity Waiver space.

It's arguably the first play developed on a San Fernando Valley stage to be made into a feature film, although a handful of Hollywood Equity Waiver projects have previously made the transition. (Perhaps the most successful was "The Gin Game" in 1976 and, more recently, Del Shore's comedy "Daddy's Dyin' (Who's Got the Will?)" launched at Theatre/Theater in 1987 and later produced by MGM.

"A Gift from Heaven," though, is particularly unusual because the quirky North Carolina tale, which deals with incest and snarly, glum characters who can also be surprisingly humorous, is not propped up by conventional commercial ingredients.

Steen, who adapted his play to the screen and also revives his dramatic performance as the play's brooding, festering son, lived every actor's fantasy by literally casting himself, with the blessing of debuting French producer Laurent Hatchwell and first-time director and former actor Jack Lucarelli.

Lucarelli was Steen's first L.A. acting teacher when the 20-year-old actor arrived in Hollywood 10 years ago and met him at the James Best Theater Center in North Hollywood. The friendship between them has paid off.

"Since the director was a friend of mine, he was somebody I could trust with my play," Steen said.

Lucarelli enlarged on his participation: "I was nervous at first because it was my maiden voyage as a director, but I had an advantage because I had seen the play. I story-boarded the whole script and came in so prepared that now it's running smoothly. I'm simply making a film that I would like to see myself--that makes people laugh and cry at the same time."

The movie location, as movie locations go, seems unusually cheerful, notwithstanding lizards, flies, heat and long (7 a.m. to 7 p.m.) working hours. Even after a grinding shooting day, most of the 40-plus cast and crew gather each night in a screening room in Burbank to catch the open dailies (unedited footage of the previous day's shooting), which adds to the familial teamwork.

With no gnarled veterans around with their own agendas, the atmosphere is stress-free, say the filmmakers. "We had a guy here working on the crew," said Steen, "who was here for his own reasons--had to get rid of him."

Steen, his clodhopper character accentuated by baggy overalls, is the only holdover from the original stage production. The biggest name in the cast is Sharon Farrell ("The Stuntman," "Marlowe"), who plays the deranged mother, given to speaking in biblical tongues and boxing her kids on the head.

Farrell landed the role, which was impressively created on stage by Sarah Hunley, over such actresses as Karen Black, Grace Zabriskie and Betty Buckley. "With the religious overtones of my role, it was a new stretch for me," said Farrell, sitting under a shady oak tree in one of her character's soiled, hand-me-down house dresses. "I never know what's going to happen," she said with a laugh. "I didn't see the play--just the words got me."

Other principal actors are Gigi Rice (from the TV series "Delta") as the wild, dirt-stained, unloved, raggedy daughter Messy Banks (originally created by Banks Harper in a mesmerizing performance), and Sarah Trigger (who had a supporting role in "Grand Canyon") as the family's shy, tentative cousin whose visit to the family hovel spills both blood and a hint of life reborn. The idea of renewed life, for two characters anyway, has been made more explicit in the movie than it was in the play.

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