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VALLEY WEEKEND | THEATER NOTES

Shared Backgrounds Bring Play Into Focus

Co-directors say say the struggles explored in 'Homefires' remind them of growing up in the South and in Texas.

May 09, 1996|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Playwright Jack Heifner is probably best known for "Vanities," one of off-Broadway's longest running hits, and one of the most produced plays of the early '80s.

In "Vanities," Heifner examines the feminine identity by tracing the lives of three women from 1963 to '73.

Some of Heifner's other concerns can be found in "Homefires," opening Friday night at North Hollywood's Road Theatre.

"Homefires," which takes place in a small town in Texas during and just after World War II, also examines the role of women in a certain time and place. But this time around, the playwright has attempted, in addition, to work through the memories and issues of his youth. Other playwrights have built careers doing this--Tennessee Williams and William Inge stand out, along with Eugene O'Neill and the early Sam Shepard.

The play, co-directed by Road Theatre founder and associate artistic director Taylor Gilbert, and longtime company member Ken Sawyer, concerns a woman named Nettie who, with her three children, has been abandoned by her husband. In order to survive, Nettie converts her home to a boarding house for women.

Sawyer, who was raised in Texas, said, "It's amazing, because as I listened to rehearsals, I flashed back to my grandparents, who lived in East Texas, and the conversations they used to have, and the attitudes of my grandmother. She was very forceful. I hate to call the women there steel magnolias--it's been used so much--but there was this inner force these women have, and their drive."

Gilbert agreed, having been raised in a part of the South that was very similar to that depicted in the play. She discussed the strength inherent in the matriarchal Nettie who, in an attempt to rise above the abandonment and make ends meet, must bring in the boarders and displace the children from their rooms. She almost becomes a mother to the boarders.

"It's basically a Southern thing," Gilbert said. "The meal, the dinner, feeding people is such a huge, huge thing with Southern women. It's important that you make people comfortable, whether you like them or not."

The play takes place in an era when most people were struggling for survival. And the events in the play sometimes foreshadow problems in life today. But there is none of today's disenchantment.

"That's a part of the story that is really important," said Gilbert. "People really believed in the country, and what they were doing, and that's where the hope comes from in the play. It was a good time for a lot of people. They got to express things they never would have if we hadn't had a war."

Commonality of interests and background have made the task of co-directing this play a lot easier for Sawyer and Gilbert. But it was coincidence that brought them together in the first place.

Some time ago a company member gave a copy of "Homefires" to Gilbert, thinking she might be interested in doing it. Coincidentally, Sawyer had appeared in another Heifner play in Hollywood, directed by the playwright, who took him to a reading of "Homefires." Sawyer became hooked.

Both Gilbert and Sawyer proceeded with separate intentions of directing the play for the Road. When their paths crossed, instead of fireworks, creative sparks flew.

Gilbert said the co-direction has been a godsend. "I've directed Ken, and we've worked together as actors. We seem to have the same sensibility."

"We finish each other's sentences," Sawyer added, with a laugh.

The two directors agree emphatically in the play's message.

"It's a slice of life," Gilbert said, "about relationships. But I believe it's about hope. . . ."

Sawyer finishes her sentence. "It's about hope and strength in a time of desperation. As people keep living, they're constantly reborn. As long as they keep that hope going, things will turn around."

DETAILS

* WHAT: "Homefires."

* WHERE: The Road Theatre, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays through Sundays. Ends June 16.

* HOW MUCH: $15.

* CALL: (818) 761-8838.

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