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.
Anyone who saw both productions would be hard-pressed to disagree: The Caldwell Theatre's recent, well-received staging of Love! Valour! Compassion! was remarkably faithful to the one that originally appeared on Broadway. Too faithful, contends Joe Mantello, who directed the play in New York. (The comedy-drama, which ran at the Caldwell from February 11 through March 31, chronicles the exploits of eight gay men over the course of three holiday weekends during a recent summer.)
A friend of Mantello who had a role in the Broadway version caught the show at the Boca Raton theater and called him to report the similarities. "I contacted my union [the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers]," Mantello explains over the telephone from New York City. "They were very supportive. They said, 'It's a big issue for us and if you'd like to pursue it, we think you should go down there this weekend and take very, very detailed notes.'" So Mantello flew to Florida, saw the Caldwell's L!V!C!, and came away feeling that 90 to 95 percent of it was his. "I take exception to the fact that his name is on it," he insists, referring to Caldwell artistic director Michael Hall, who, the SSDC claims, took a director's credit for L!V!C! without acknowledging Mantello's ideas.
Hall doesn't deny that he drew on Mantello's vision of the play. But he says it never occurred to him to recognize Mantello officially. As Hall points out, many details of the original production, including a prop list and a ground plan for the staging, appear in the back of the play's script, published by Dramatist Play Service and used by the Caldwell cast and crew. Hall has always considered such details part of the public domain, available for use by theaters with limited resources and a short rehearsal schedule. "Joe Mantello did a wonderful job," Hall admits, speaking from his office in Boca. "He did originate this play. And [playwright] Terrence McNally, in the script that we had, said it was a definitive production. He said the stage design was inevitable. So you read all that and you do the script and you think, 'Well, in two and a half weeks of rehearsal for a three-hour play, you don't reinvent the wheel.' You have to sort of follow the recipe."
Mantello begs to differ: "That's very flattering, but the play is good enough to stand up to many different interpretations. You could do it very literally. You could do it even more abstractly than we did it. It could be done so that it is very sophisticated with lots of moving parts. It could be done with real water on the stage. I know because we went round and round with many different ideas." He considers Hall's refusal to reconceive the show to be an expression of Hall's limited imagination rather than an acceptable solution to time constraints. "If you look at a script and say you can't do that without stealing somebody else's work, then my feeling is choose another play. But if you choose to do this magnificent [piece] that is epic in proportion and that is three hours long and that is very complicated in staging, then you owe it to yourself as an artist to create the time in which to do the appropriate work on it."
Had the Caldwell been asked to credit Mantello at the very beginning, Hall claims, "we would have been happy to do it." (The theater and the SSDC are currently negotiating a financial settlement for Mantello. The union is also requesting that the Boca company take out ads in Variety and in the local press recognizing Mantello's contribution to the Caldwell production.) Ultimately, Hall doesn't view the charges as a matter of artistic integrity; instead, he feels the SSDC is putting the squeeze on artistic directors of small theaters, who are not required to join the union's ranks. "It's a union-driven issue," he asserts. "The SSDC is trying to force theaters not to do new work unless they [the theaters] hire their own [SSDC] director, and the impact it will have across the country is reprehensible. Any theater will be terrified to follow the basic stage design and prop list that they'd received [at the back of a script] for fear that someone's going to come in and say, 'Oh, that was just like mine.'"
Not surprisingly, the union pooh-poohs such a notion. "We are basically establishing that stage directions are intellectual property," explains Barbara Hauptman, executive director of the SSDC. Recently the organization won a settlement for director Gerald Gutierrez from an Illinois theater that borrowed aspects of his Broadway direction of The Most Happy Fella.
The fallout from this controversy may indeed result in extra expenses for small and regional theaters if at some point in the future, in addition to paying royalties to playwrights, they also have to pay them to directors. As Hall wonders, "If suddenly your royalty jumps from ten or twelve percent of the gross up to twenty percent of the gross, who would do new plays?"
Written by Evelyn Wilde Mayerson; directed by Gail Garrisan; with Joan Turner. Through April 28. For information call 442-4000 or see "Calendar Listings.
Get the Arts Newsletter
Weekly information on all the on goings in the art and event world. Find out what the hot trends are and what's happening this week in our Arts newsletter. Coming Soon.