I have one major complaint to lodge about Carousel, and it has nothing to do with the quality of the production. The show was booked for a pitifully short run in Miami Beach. It never even made it to the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale. In fact, if you want to catch it, pick up the phone now and reserve tickets before it closes on Sunday in West Palm Beach.
When Evelyn Wilde Mayerson was asked to write a one-woman show about writer, conservationist, and Miami icon Marjory Stoneman Douglas, her first reaction was disbelief. Her second reaction was fear. "I got a call from [Coconut Grove Playhouse producing artistic director] Arnold Mittelman," Mayerson recounts recently over coffee in a Surfside cafe. "This was December 1994. He said, 'Evelyn, the centennial's coming up. What do you think about a play about Marjory Stoneman Douglas?' I said, 'Arnold, that sounds terrific.' So then there was silence because I'm still not getting it. He said, 'Well?' So I said, 'Well, what?' And he said, 'Well, will you accept the commission?'"
The Playhouse and the writer have something of a history, with her The Long and Lovely Suicide, Mayerson's award-winning drama about Oscar Wilde, having enjoyed a staged reading there in 1987. Mittelman had read Mayerson's most recent novel, Miami: A Saga, about 100 years in the lives of five South Florida families, and thought she was the best person to tackle the job of re-creating the inspired and inspiring life of Douglas (who will turn 106 this April) for presentation at the Playhouse. "It was a tremendous challenge," Mayerson admits. "I was flabbergasted, honored, scared to death."
Author of eight novels, two plays (including Marjory), and two children's books, the slim, graceful Mayerson is also an English professor at the University of Miami. She dove into the Douglas project, following a method she uses when writing her historically based fiction -- immersing herself in background material, including Douglas's archives at UM. In addition to interviewing people who had worked for Douglas, the playwright spent six months poring over Douglas's diaries, manuscripts, notes, and letters. Mayerson also met with Douglas herself, although she drew extensively on interviews she'd conducted with Douglas eight and fifteen years ago because, she concedes, Douglas is now very frail.
Finally, she notes, "sometime last April or May I started to write." But composing a play posed different demands than writing a long, discursive novel. "There are several difficulties that I was challenged with," Mayerson explains. "Number one, she's 105 years old. You have to reduce 105 years to two hours. What is representative that I can do in two hours? I tried to focus on her humanity, the things that make her tick. I tried to get into her life and really nail what motivates her as a person. But the play can't just be a docudrama. They'd be running out of every exit. So in addition to the inner forces of her personal life, I needed to establish some kind of fictitious scenario where we have something at stake at the beginning and we follow it through two acts." After what Mayerson terms six "wholesale revisions," the completed work telescopes decades of actual events into a two-month period. During the course of the play, the activist, at age 89, takes her campaign to save acres of the Everglades before the state legislature.
Mayerson credits Marjory's director Gail Garrisan with helping to bang the drama into its current shape. "She's been invaluable in my rewrites," Mayerson insists. "She was always there to read it. She was always there to comment. She'd say, 'I think this speech needs to be shifted here, the actress will need a transition here.'" What actress Joan Turner brought to the role once rehearsals started solidified the final draft as well. "There are a lot of changes that you do in a brand new play that you do on the spot when you hear the actors perform it," Mayerson says. "Ultimately my guiding principle has been what serves the play."
You can see Marjory at Coconut Grove Playhouse's Encore Room through April 28. Call 442-4000 for information.
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein; music by Richard Rodgers; directed by Nicholas Hytner; with Patrick Wilson, Sarah Uriarte, Sherry D. Boone, Rebecca Eichenberger, Sean Palmer, Joseph Woelfel, and Dana Stackpole. Through March 17. Call 407-832-7469 or see "Calendar Listings.