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'Laura' Reveals Some Family Secrets

September 27, 1996|PHILIP BRANDES

Considering all the effort Horton Foote's characters go through to conceal painful truths, it's remarkable how openly they wear their heartaches on their sleeves. Whether they recognize it or not, their most closely guarded secrets are rendered transparent in deceptively simple dialogue that never overleaps the boundaries of everyday speech.

Foote's recent drama, "Laura Dennis," in its L.A. debut at the Zephyr Theatre, is a splendid example of breathtaking narrative economy perfected over a long and distinguished career. Even offhand remarks throw open windows into entire life histories, as the inhabitants of a close-knit Texas community circa 1938 grapple with cycles of generational tragedy and revenge that continue in spite of--and sometimes because of--their shields of reticence.

His title character, played by Wendy Rolfe, is a teenager who is in such ignorance about her origins that she's unaware until far too late that the schoolboy she's known all her life (Chris Mueller) is her half-brother. Not that he's any better informed--his adopted parents (Cameron Watson and Stephanie Dunnam) have never explained their disapproval of his interest in Laura. A parallel drama involving Laura's profligate cousin (Gloria LeRoy) and her alcoholic daughter (Dale Dickey) broadens the tableau.


Seduction, betrayal and murder are the stuff of high drama to be sure, yet Foote's insistent focus is not on the depiction of these charged events but rather on their lingering reverberations amid the ordinary routines of the survivors.

Under the sensitive, clearsighted direction of Crystal Brian (who staged Foote's "The Habitation of Dragons" last season at this venue with some of the same performers), the capable 13-member ensemble evokes the rhythms and sensibilities of these small-town residents in a sparse succession of revealing exchanges played without intermission. For all their blocked dreams and the sad partiality of even their occasional victories, there's an abundance of tenderness and humor in these portraits brought so vividly and touchingly to life.

* "Laura Dennis," Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave. Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 27. $20. (213) 660-TKTS. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

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