Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
A Woman of Independent Means
Consider a show like Amadeus or 1776. These shows take historical personages who we only know through their recorded deeds, and imagine them as dramatic characters - full of life, flaws, and passions. A Woman of Independent Means, in a production at the Fremont Centre Theatre, manages the opposite - turning a fictional character into a cold, empty shell, who is barely more than words on a page.
The problem may well be with the source material. Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey's epistolary novel told the story of fictional Bess through only her letters. Rather than directly narrating Bess's tale or describing the events of her life, the book invited readers to learn about Bess as she was reflected in the letters she chose to write. As the book was so dependent upon the nuances of the written word, it is particularly unsuited to stage adaptation.
Nearly all of the dialogue in this one-woman show, adapted by Forsythe Hailey herself, is simply Bess dictating the text of letters she has already written. Because the letters are written after the events they are describing, and Bess is reading them to us after they have been written, Bess is twice removed from the things she is describing. The result is cold and passionless. When Bess tells us, after her house has been destroyed by fire, that she is "heartsick at the prospect of being homeless," her relaying the fact is not heartsick at all; instead, she speaks with the measured sweetness of a letter-writer who has controlled her emotions. While Bess is sometimes allowed a momentary facial expression to convey her reaction the moment disaster actually strikes, all of her dialogue comes from a distance.
Actress Lissa Layng takes on the role of Bess, the wealthy woman whose life we follow through some seventy years beginning in 1900. Layng emphasizes Bess's controlling personality; not only is it apparent in the text of Bess's letters that she always believes she is right, Layng also gives Bess a snooty delivery which emphasizes every pointed superior remark. There's no subtext in Bess's letters as read by Layng - she wants to make certain everyone is aware of her little taunting gibes.
Layng never changes Bess's paced, ladylike speech, with the result that, were it not for the dates on the letters, we would have no clue as to Bess's age. Layng's delivery does not vary between Bess at 30 and Bess at 70. Her voice and mannerisms only age during the last few minutes of the play, when all of Bess's years catch up with her in a torrent of aging.
A Woman of Independent Means ran on Broadway for some 25 performances in 1984. It was directed by Norman Cohen, who directs the instant revival. His direction is smooth, using props and costumes changes - all in sight of the audience - to animate what would otherwise be two and a half hours of "books on tape." Yet, one convention Cohen uses to tell the tale adds to the distancing effect already so prominent in the show. Sometimes Bess is seated at a writing desk with a piece of paper in her hand, representing one of the many letters she is writing. But with a single exception, she never folds and seals the letters, or places them in the equivalent of an "out" box. Instead, she stows each page in a shelf or drawer under the desk. The gesture is one of an actress tidying up her set, not of a character properly preparing to mail a letter. Worse yet, in order to keep the pace of the show moving, Bess frequently puts a paper away before she is finished relaying the text of the letter it is meant to represent. The motion instantly reminds us that this is not a woman truly writing letters, but an actress working her way through a script. This action, like so much of the production, prevents us from ever connecting to Bess as a three-dimensional character. She remains nothing more than the endless stream of events she dispassionately recounts.
Fremont Centre Theatre and Rosemary Layng present A Woman of Independent Means by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, based on her novel. Starring Lissa Layng. Directed by Norman Cohen. Associate producer Lisa Payne Marschall; Lighting Design Carol Doehring; Scenic Design Evan A. Bartoletti; Costume Design Peter A. Lovello; Design Assistant-Seamstress Jeanne Joe; Sound Design Richard Spaulding; Sound Operator Katie Dunn; Stage Manager Shawna Rathwell; Propmaster Clarice Knapp.
A Woman of Independent Means runs at the Fremont Centre Theatre through July 20, 2003. For tickets, call (626) 441-5977, or see www.fremontcentretheatre.com.