A River Runs Through Her

Few people come to Miami in search of history. If anything, people flock here to escape the past. They flee oppressive political regimes, depressed economic conditions, and brutal weather. Retirees trade in work for golf and a poolside seat. Families relocate for the promise of jobs. Artists and entertainers leave behind the grind of more competitive creative centers, while model wanna-be's descend on South Beach in hopes of being discovered. And builders cash in by erecting housing overnight to satisfy the needs of a continuously swelling population. Warm weather, outdoor cafes, all-night clubs, and miles and miles of beckoning beaches promote a party mentality, the illusion of living in the moment. Yet with all due respect to hedonists and Buddhists, the eternal present can sustain someone for just so long. After a while everybody craves a fix of historical connection to the place in which they live. Evelyn Wilde Mayerson provides that fix for South Floridians in Marjory, her feisty and informative celebration of the life of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, now on-stage at the Coconut Grove Playhouse's Encore Room.

Like many of us, Douglas was not born in Miami. The writer and conservationist, who turned 106 this past Sunday, arrived from New England in 1915 at the age of 25. Her beloved mother Lillian had died. Her husband, Kenneth Douglas, had forged her name to one too many checks. So she came here to join her father, the first editor in chief of the Miami Herald, whom she had not seen since she was six. Frank Stoneman put his daughter to work as the Herald's first woman reporter. Her beat: gossip. Douglas was also the first woman in Florida to enlist in the navy during World War I. By 1926 she had quit the Herald, had a house built in Coconut Grove (where she still resides), and was earning a living as a short story writer. A request to write a book about the Miami River blossomed into a research project on the vast ecosystem that supplies South Florida with water; her seminal book on the subject, The Everglades: River of Grass, was published in 1947. More than twenty years after the publication of River of Grass, Douglas turned political activist in support of the Everglades. From her late seventies until she turned 100, she lobbied the state legislature and flew around the world educating people about the dangers of overdeveloping and despoiling South Florida's natural resources.

Playwright Mayerson, an English professor at the University of Miami and the author of Miami: A Saga (an intergenerational novel about five South Florida families), opens her two-act, one-person play in Douglas's living room in 1979. She structures the show partially around the then-89-year-old activist's eight-week struggle to get herself on the agenda of a crucial legislative session in Tallahassee and partially around an interview Douglas gives to a reporter who comes to her house. We never see the reporter, whose intended story Douglas hopes will promote interest in saving the environment. Yet while being interviewed, Douglas recalls the story of her life, from the loss of her mother (the pain of which follows her into later life) to the crucial realization that the Everglades is indeed a river and not a swamp. Thus Mayerson splices together the past and the present, creating a pastiche of Douglas's personal background and Miami's social and political history.

Where Mayerson engagingly delivers Douglas on the page, director Gail Garrisan brings this woman's remarkable and inspiring life to the stage, urging a heartfelt and authentic performance from actress Joan Turner. In their hands, Douglas emerges as both folksy (she wears big floppy hats, loves to sleep until noon, and dotes on her cat) and erudite (she effortlessly quotes philosophers and writers from Aristotle to Virgil to Flannery O'Connor to Yeats). And she does not suffer fools gladly, whether she's snapping at the young interviewer who doesn't understand a literary reference or snarling at detractors in a public meeting for not booing her loudly enough.

Although engagingly written and performed, Marjory sometimes feels unwieldy. Mayerson has crammed two acts with decades of information culled from Douglas's collected papers and from interviews with Douglas herself. As a result the play's scales at times tip more in the direction of documentary than drama, as if it were a staged version of an episode of the A&E channel's made-for-television biography series. Accordingly, the director and actress seem to struggle with the sheer bulk of the material. To stitch together this collection of scenes on the Encore Room's tiny stage, Garrisan (in collaboration with lighting director Todd Wren) often dims the lights and then raises a single spotlight to indicate another time or place. Under the spotlight Turner relives scenes as a child with her mother, as a young woman with her father, and as a conservationist appealing to various organizations to support her environmental cause. The transitions feel clumsy. Turner, with two acts' worth of solo characterization to juggle, sometimes reaches to remember her lines.

In the overall scheme of the evening, however, the sheer force of Douglas's personality A carefully, intelligently, and lovingly evoked by Mayerson, Garrisan, and Turner A overshadows any awkwardness. Quite an achievement, the production pays gracious tribute to Marjory while honoring the natural world this extraordinary woman has fought to preserve.

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