A MOMENT IN THE LIFE OF WILLA DEE ARVISby Mark-Brian Sonna
Directed by Charles Ballinger
Stage Manager & AD – Lauren Mowery
Set – Alejandro de la Costa
Costume, Props, Sound & Lights – Mark-Brian Sonna
Laura Lester – Willa Dee
Selena Marie Flores - Emily
Mildred Austin - Granmomma
Joel Frapart - Euel
Jake Bowman - Rayne
David Durrett - Clark
Reviewed Performance: 4/1/2017
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
A MOMENT IN THE LIFE OF WILLA DEE ARVIS was written by Mark-Brian Sonna after a chance encounter with an obituary that sparked his imagination. The obit was true and the story is based on fact. But much of the story disappeared since 1942. The author’s imagination kicked in and made this a tale of woe, a suspicion of betrayal, and a question of life long consequences.
MBS Productions revived this story from its 2006 opening when the author was at the helm. This time it’s directed by Charles Ballinger who uses a different cast and fresh perspectives?
Willa Dee Arvis and her cousin, Emily, get the new summer 1942 issue of National Geographic. This iconic magazine was a premier media source of news about our troops around the world. This issue has a story of a training base in the Caribbean and features photos of soldiers, including Willa’s and Emily’s husbands. That provides an exciting chance to connect and reminisce about life and love and things remembered about the family. Unfortunately, Willa and Emily don’t remember history the same way. And that divergence, the stories we tell ourselves to explain our lives, triggers a crisis these women may not survive.
Sets and lights and such, especially in this small Addison Cottage, are simple and mostly disappear into the story. Much of this changed from the premier when Alejandro de la Costa and Mark-Brian Sonna designed everything in much more elegance. For this production, a dining room table in a house and a few antique furniture pieces comprised Willa’s house on one end of this great-room type of facility. The other end of the room just contained a few chairs and some black acting boxes, shrouded in a grey darkness. This split of the space into two acting areas allowed the story to jump frequently back to events a year earlier before the girls married and the husbands scurried off to war. With subtle lighting shifts, we easily moved back and forth in time to see moments that affected the current crisis.
Sonna’s costume designs also were simple, with dresses and hairstyles of the 1940’s. It’s interesting to see how close they are to today’s styles.
Charles Ballinger took the helm for this year’s production. It’s hard to know where Sonna’s original vision, the text of the story, and Ballinger’s new perspectives intersected, but there was clear evidence of a strong director’s influence. One thing of note is that all actors were “on-stage” most of the time, often sitting in their end of the playing space, either the past or the present, and yet each followed the action and dialog of the story with rapt attention. They reacted and responded in-character, even though they were doing so across a time threshold. This is often not noticed by audience, but it greatly influences the story telling and audience feelings.
The “MOMENT IN THE LIFE OF” poses the idea that there is a moment in our lives where everything we know suddenly changes as a result of that moment. However, in this story, there’s actually one for each wife that becomes critical to the story. For Willa Dee, that point arrives when she realizes what she thought, suspected, and knew at some level, was in-fact true and it might change everything for her. For Emily, her cousin and best friend, there was a shocking, unforgivable betrayal.
Willa Dee was played by Laura Lester. This slim woman in yellow and orange flower print chiffon dress and orange head net had an air of innocence like a young wife who hadn’t been touched yet. This is her story. What happened that changed everything, such that her obituary could say nearly everything about her life before and almost nothing afterward? Lester took this character through a coaster ride of emotions. At one moment she was overjoyed. The next she was worried. A moment later she was distraught. There is in Willa a sense of trying to maintain the appearance of happiness and perfection, even while nagging thoughts about her husband and reminders from her Granmomma make that hard. Lester navigated a tightrope of unpleasant truths that would knock her off the rope to one side or the other. So her ability to play extremes of emotion as each memory opens in the light was skilled crafts work that showed how truth can be devastating and suggested possible truths about what happened to her.
Selena Marie Flores as Emily had a different task. Emily and Willa are cousins raised by their Granmomma after an accident left them parentless. There’s a story there too, but it affects Granmomma more than the girls. It was another piece of truth that adds to the devastation. But this connection makes Willa and Emily sisters, so sharing new knowledge they hadn’t shared before is a recipe for disaster. Flores had to create a character who was younger, naïve, yet wiser in some ways. Her reaction to the slowly unfolding facts showed through fits of uncontrollable laughter, a common reaction to bad news. These laughing outbursts are a little like crying and sobbing for actors – they’re a skill to learn. Flores’ success was obvious, as it was painful to watch the laughter we knew was covering deep anguish. Emily’s shocking moment is an unexpected betrayal, as devastating for her as Willa’s is for her. Flores reached into the opposite range of emotions to play this, but then took it to another place we all go, an icy, silence and resolve to get away.
The husbands were just boys, like many who entered the army during the war. Inseparable throughout their childhood, they shared much more than either shared with their wife. That was a problem.
Rayne was played by Jake Bowman. A tall, handsome young man who had the look of a boy just out of high school, a jock-type, but softer. His dark pants and gray long-sleeve pull-over made him a twin of his best friend, Clark. Bowman is a veteran of MBS productions and looked comfortable in this environment. His presence in this story was a memory; so he sat in the corner between his scenes and acted within the memory area, save for one excursion to the dining table where an atrocity occurred. Most of Rayne’s action is reenacting events prior to leaving for the Army; times he spent with Clark and a fellow-student, Euel. Most of these were intimate in boyish, innocent ways, but shocking for the times. These events triggered all the conflicts of this story. Bowman made this flawed character likable, though clearly a user of Willa and Euel. In his portrayal there was both a powerful drive to play Rayne’s dominant and vulnerable sides, but in such a smooth way that the transitions between them were invisible.
David Durrett as Clark also looked like a twin of Rayne. A bit more innocent, like a young man growing too fast for his life cycle, he easily goes along with Rayne’s advances and the ridicule against Euel. Clark is the archetypal sidekick. Durrett created a Clark who could’ve been a brother without the rivalry. His marriage to Emily and the secrets he held with her are equal to that of Rayne and Willa, but in Clark it doesn’t seem as much like manipulation. But he’s there at each moment when Rayne is attacked by Granmomma and Durrett shows Clark as the protective best friend, maybe more.
Joel Frapart played Euel, the friend of Rayne and Clark who can’t qualify for the Army due to his club foot. He is caught up in the furor over the boys’ sordid intimacies, but is weak of character, often the butt of their antics. He becomes a Red Cross worker for the war effort, delivering bad news to families. Frapart made this character complex and lovable even as he’s scared to resist the boys bullying. Later, when he delivers news to the wives, Frapart makes Euel struggle with this horrible duty, as we discovered a burden he carries from his high school days that affects Willa. Frapart does a good job of showing Euel’s deep yearning for her and his breakdown when he faces his own crisis moment.
Mildred Austin played the Granmomma of Willa and Emily. A deeply religious woman, at a time when religion meant judgmental, Austin had to embrace the character of evil. That’s a difficult acting job, not just acting mean, but conveying evil due to underlying, hidden causes that have rational logic. We learn to hate the evil character, but can understand through her revelation of the cause what causes her behavior. Austin looked like the gram maw we all think of fondly, but she created a Granmomma everyone could despise. It was 2-dimensional for much of the story, repeating anger and vitriol, but in a crisis moment of her own, which offers her the chance to soften and become lovable, Austin peered into Granma’s past, revealed what was driving her to resort to crimes, and then gloated over tragedies everyone else was suffering. In this moment, Austin gave Granmomma understandable layers, but then rejected reconciliation, sealing her evil fate. Austin committed to this character fully to make this successful.
A MOMENT IN THE LIFE OF WILLA DEE ARVIS came out of a dream based on an obituary. Perhaps the dream was a message from Willa Dee to tell her story, but Willa may also have been a muse to allow Sonna’s own story about secrets we hide in the dark and tragedies we experience when they emerge. Sonna and Ballinger used different ways of melding the real with the imagined in their production versions and different staging methods to create interplay between present and remembered events. Here, minimalism allowed this story to move rapidly. It’s a Greek tragedy and intense throughout, so allowing for a rapid flow is a great design choice.
“Life never changes gradually; it does so in fits and starts. There is always a moment, a realization, an incident in life in which everything changes and life is redefined.” This statement sums up Sonna’s message, though another foreshadowing statement by Willa is a hidden theme, “Loss of innocence – that’s what growing up is.”
That time in our America created a loss of innocence for everyone. Children grew up quickly to become part of the war effort and lives were regularly shattered. The 1940’s was a watershed moment for America. That innocence is now long-gone and we see children losing innocence in their adolescent years. This Americana story of the 40’s is now a world-wide reality and we should carefully consider the consequences. I don’t know if we’ve hit bottom yet. But this story will pose the questions and allow us to see what could be.
The Stone Cottage Theatre
15650 Addison Road
Addison, Texas 75001
Plays through April 23rd
Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Sunday April 23 at 2:00 pm
Tickets range from $20 - $27.
For information and tickets, go to www.mbsproductions.net or call 214-477-4942.