(L)imitations of Life
A couple of seasons back, The Empty Space had great empty-headed fun reconstructing the movie version of Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls. Conceived and directed by Susan Finque and adapted by Marcus Gardley, (L)imitations of Life, the Space's newest opus, is a deconstruction, and a rather splendid one, of the old Fannie Hurst novel Imitation of Life which served as a film vehicle for both Claudette Colbert (1934) and Lana Turner (1959). While Colbert and Turner were top-billed, their thunder was stolen by Louise Beavers and Juanita Moore, respectively, as their African American housekeepers/confidantes. Neither film is the sort of camp wallow that Valley of the Dolls is, and Finque, whose dream it has long been to bring her vision of this tale to the stage, mines comedy, pathos, and irony in nearly equal amounts.
The play depicts a company performing a stage version of (basically) the Turner film, which was directed by the subtly subversive Douglas Sirk at the peak of his film career, so adeptly observed by Todd Haynes' film Far From Heaven. Gardsley and Finque imagine the show being performed as a stage play with actors who have various issues with their roles, onstage and off. Lora Meredith, a 1940s single mom raising her daughter Susie meets warmhearted pancake chef extraordinaire Annie Johnson and her fair-skinned daughter Sarah Jane at Coney Island, and the two become housemates. Lora basically abandons Susie to Annie's tender, loving care while Annie's heart is stomped on at regular intervals by Sarah Jane's shame at her racial heritage, and at having a mother who is a throwback to Aunt Jemima (hence the pancakes). The adult Susie competes (in vain) for the love of her mother's boyfriend Steve, while Sarah Jane changes her name and runs off to become a honky-tonk singer, ever fearful of her loving Mother exposing her. Annie, whose health is failing, consoles herself by planning a lavish funeral.
The entire story is framed by the actors' backstage observations of how ill suited they feel in their typecast roles. Gardsley and Finque make their pungent points fairly subtly, and a closing video montage of great African American actresses who have played domestics through the years is the perfect finishing touch.
Gretchen Lee Krich is eerily successful at capturing both the look and voice of Lana Turner, and generates big laughs every time Lora demands more pancakes. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates smoothly slides between being the long suffering Annie and the actress who endures portraying her; ever mindful that at least she is playing a domestic and not working as one. Nick Garrison is sublimely comic, whether in pants or a skirt, as the actor playing Steve who would much rather be playing Lora/Lana, and ultimately does so. Amber Wolfe is quite effective as Sarah Jane, walking the fine line between sincerity and camp. Bhama Roget shines as the cloyingly precocious little Susie, and rather less so as the grasping young actress who would also prefer to play Lora. The inordinately talented Sarah Rudinoff is somewhat wasted as the much put-upon stage manager, but struts her blazing talent boldly when leading a daffily surreal musical number about the famous Lana Turner/Cheryl Crane/Johnny Stompanato murder case (which was eerily echoed by the mother/daughter rivalry in the film). Lathrop Walker as the actor playing playwright David Edwards has much less to do than the other cast members, and lacked his co-stars ease at shifting from one reality to another.
Composer/lyricist Richard Gray contributes several clever and musically inventive backstage musical numbers, succinctly choreographed by Nick Garrison. Karen Gjeelsteen's set is the definition of brilliance on a low budget and is adroitly lit by lighting designer John Harmon. Ron Erickson seems to have ransacked the wardrobe trunks of Edith Head in costuming the show, with his Lana Turner outfits especially apropos.
(L)imitations of Life plays through April 17 at the Empty Space Theatre, 3509 Fremont Ave N. For further information visit the Empty Space online at www.emptyspace.org.