"The only defense against death is life," says the title character in "A Woman of Independent Means," now at the Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena. This 20th-anniversary revival of Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey's 1983 monodrama based on her bestselling 1978 novel abounds in such quotables.
On page and stage, "Woman" uses epistolary means to present Hailey's grandmother, Elizabeth Alcott Steed Garner (Lissa Layng), Bess, to intimates. Born to privilege in 1890s Texas, Bess' burgeoning awareness of gender inequity mirrors that of 20th century America.
The original local production starring Barbara Rush was a memorable hit (though not on Broadway), and a 1995 miniseries with Sally Field was well received. This is understandable; between the authenticity of the narrative and Bess' strength of character, Hailey's writing has easy accessibility and pertinence.
Evan A. Bartoletti's set, Richard Spaulding's sound and Carol Doehring's lighting merge to create Hailey's attic of the mind, and Peter A. Lovello's costumes span the eras with elegant specificity.
So does Layng's striking performance, finding the contradictions beneath Bess' measured formality without straining for effect. She amusingly embraces the passive-aggressive aspects, charting the peaks and valleys that shape Bess' eventual wisdom with telling subtlety.
This may well suffice for fans of the material. However, director Norman Cohen, who staged the original, indulges in overly languid pace. This betrays the work's innate liability: The merits are those of storytelling more than dramaturgy. Still, if "Woman" remains a literary conceit masquerading as a play, it's a worthy read, regardless.
-- David C. Nichols
"A Woman of Independent Means," Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends May 11. $18. (626) 441-5977. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.
Sacrifice and terror in Bosnia
A besieged Sarajevo newsroom becomes a microcosm of life under oppressive circumstances in "Liberation," presented by Rude Guerrilla Theater Company in Santa Ana.
Director Jody J. Reeves and nine actors bravely commit themselves to a story by Portland, Ore., playwright Steve Patterson that graphically depicts the devastation of artillery and arms fire. Copious amounts of fake blood have soaked through clothing and spilled onto the floor by the time this gritty presentation is over.
Set in the early 1990s during the Bosnian conflict, "Liberation" puts a daily newspaper's offices in harm's way when one of the reporters (Kristian Capalik) brings in a Serb army deserter (Justin L. Waggle) willing to reveal the atrocities his unit was ordered to commit in a Muslim community. In return, the deserter wants a guarantee of safe passage out of the country for himself and his sister (Jami McCoy). The army knows where he is, though, and soon the news offices have been sealed off and threatened with attack if the deserter isn't turned over.
As the clock ticks, the journalists -- a mix of Serbs, Croats and Muslims -- frantically try to think of a way to publish the revelation, if they can coax it out of the now frightened and recalcitrant deserter. The emotions that pour forth are compellingly conveyed by Waggle as the deserter, who turns hard and bitter as he is eaten alive with shame; Deborah Conroy and David Rusiecki, as husband-and-wife editors who must be compassionate yet ruthless as they make decisions that could mean life or death for their staff; and Andrew Nienaber, Melita Ann Sagar, Craig Johnson and Luz Violeta Govill as employees who may have to make the ultimate sacrifice for their profession.
Patterson pushes his plot and some of his characters too hard as he tries to tweak still more drama from an extreme situation. Still, he makes a strong statement about the power of information. His story is painful to witness, but it certainly resonates.
-- Daryl H. Miller
"Liberation," Rude Guerrilla at Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 p.m. No performance this Sunday; added performance Thursday, 8 p.m. $15. (714) 547-4688. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
A thoughtful take on 'Uncle Vanya'
Artfully layering the delicate and the ludicrous, Chekhov's comical-tragical masterworks serve as both heartfelt elegies for a vanishing class system and mordant satires of aristocratic foibles. When interpreting Chekhov, one of the biggest challenges is keeping those layers distinct.
Most commonly, theatrical directors err on the side of the comical, reducing Chekhov to broadness and caricature. As if mindful of that failing, director Chris Fields takes the opposite tack in "Uncle Vanya" at the Lillian Theatre. Gingerly and respectfully, Fields crafts a thoughtful but sere production that shortchanges the comical effusions that are part and parcel of Chekhov, and most particularly of "Vanya."