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Rooted in Serious Humor


Monkey grass is a Texas term for a tenacious weed with roots so deep and strong they are nearly impossible to eradicate, no matter how hard you dig--much like those messy old family roots that reach out and grab you just when you think you have escaped.

"Monkey Grass" is also a new play by Lee Murphy, whose work "Catch a Falling Star" won an Ovation Award from Theatre LA for best new play in 1995 and a Dramalogue Award in 1998.

"Monkey Grass," which is playing at the Victory Theatre in Burbank, is the follow-up to "Catch a Falling Star" and second in a planned trilogy that explores family dynamics, drawing on Murphy's own Southern roots for inspiration.

"Monkey Grass" revolves around a powerhouse Hollywood producer who is making one of those quintessential disaster pictures when she is called home to Ditchwater, Texas, because her sister is dying from a brain tumor. Before she knows it, the monkey grass sucks her back into the guilt, obligations and family ties she thought she had neatly excised from her life.

But don't think this is a dark play about family angst.

"It is seriously funny," noted Victory artistic co-director Maria Gobetti, who directed "Catch a Falling Star" as well as "Monkey Grass."

Murphy calls the play "an emotional comedy." She is currently playwright-in-residence at the 91-seat Victory and has had two other critically acclaimed plays performed there. She said she believes strongly in seeing the funny side of life and family, no matter how badly mangled the roots.

"Humor is the light in life," she explained. "I'd rather see the humor in life, even in the absurdities. Life should be fun. You should be happy."

Murphy has always tried to see the funny side, whether she was acting, writing or singing, which she has been doing since she was 6 years old. She and her older sister, Susan Schmidt, sang on the "Curly Fox and Texas Ruby Show," a regional TV program big in southeast Texas. Known as the Brown Sisters, they "got to wear big, pretty petticoats. But they weren't as big as Brenda Lee's."


Even as a child, she said, "Everything I wrote sounded like the 'Sid Caesar Show' or 'The Honeymooners.' But my sense of humor wasn't always appropriate, so writing is an act of bravery for me. And maybe a little bit of stupidity."

Born in Port Arthur, Texas, Murphy grew up mostly in Houston. Her father, whose varied jobs included a stint as a semi-pro baseball player, a private detective and a furniture salesman, and her staunchly religious mother, who sang in the church choir, were great storytellers in the manner, she noted, of those born and raised for generations in the South.

After rushing through the University of Houston to graduate in 2 1/2 years with a degree in television and film, Murphy married at 21 and moved to San Diego, where she studied film at San Diego State, quitting just nine units shy of her master's degree.

"I was doing theater then and it was taking over my life," she said.

She has done a variety of acting, from several seasons at San Diego's Old Globe to roles in television, film and commercials. In the early 1970s, she wrote and performed comedy sketches for the group Fourplay, which included Julie Kavner, David Leisure and Don Sparks, and she participated in Harvey Lembeck's comedy workshops.

Her acting experiences, she said, help enormously when creating her characters.

"I always think, 'If I had to play [this character], would I want to?' I write for the actor as well as for the audience. I want to be read and performed by actors who have a good time doing it."

Murphy, who lives in Burbank with her children Benny, 13, and Becky, 9, has other projects in various stages of formation, including the third part of the trilogy, "The Garden of Eden Apts."

Writing for the theater, she said, is her real passion.

"I've gotten the most joy from the theater. There, you can reach people and open hearts."


"Monkey Grass" through May 21 at the Victory Theatre, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank. Tickets: $18 Thursday and Sunday, $20 Friday-Saturday. (818) 841-5421. See

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