2011-10-12 / Arts & Entertainment News

New Play Contest winner scores with opening-night audience

ARTS COMMENTARY

Remember when you were a little kid and would debate: If two equally strong powers, say, Batman and Superman, got into a fight, who would triumph?

“Invasion of Privacy,” playing at Theatre Conspiracy through Oct. 22, is the adult, legal version of that: If freedom of speech and an individual’s right to privacy go head-to-head, which will win?

It’s an interesting dilemma, one we still grapple with today.

“Invasion of Privacy” focuses on a 1946 landmark case in which Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was sued by a neighbor, Zelma Cason, for writing about her in “Cross Creek.” Even though Ms. Rawlings didn’t identify Zelma by her last name, and even though Ms. Rawlings’ description is accurate — Zelma was an eccentric character who loved her whiskey and cursed as readily and as easily as she breathed — Zelma is suing for libel and invasion of privacy.


“Invasion of Privacy” focuses on lawsuit against Pulitzer Prizewinning author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. 
COURTESY PHOTO “Invasion of Privacy” focuses on lawsuit against Pulitzer Prizewinning author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. COURTESY PHOTO Zelma demands $100,000 but is willing to settle out of court for $8,000. Ms. Rawlings refuses on principle. Why should she pay? She’s done nothing wrong. Zelma’s demand amounts to censorship. Plus, the writer reasons, if she acquiesces, what’s to stop the more than 100 other people she’s written about from suing her, too?

Written by Sarasota playwright Larry Parr, “Invasion of Privacy” is is this year’s winner of Theatre Conspiracy’s New Play Contest. It’s easy to see why. The dialogue is playful and entertaining. The themes are universal, yet it’s about as Florida-centric as you can get, about Floridians and set in Florida.

Mr. Parr has created a tightly written play filled with strong, quirky, colorful characters.

Some stellar performances

When we first meet Ms. Rawlings (Joann Haley), she’s sitting on the front porch of her house, banging away on a manual typewriter, a bottle of whiskey and a shotgun close at hand. She’s a woman of deep passions who loves writing, the wilderness, animals, her husband Norton, her neighbors and her adopted home of Cross Creek.

She’s also a woman prone to what she calls “dark spells,” though her husband tells her these “bad things come from the same place your genius comes from.”

Ms. Haley plays this strong woman of tumultuous feelings with skilled gusto. One minute she’s flirting with her husband, the next she’s in despair about the lawsuit and fears everyone hates her. Her emotions are as quicksilver as Florida weather, where it can be sunny one moment and a violent downpour the next. Ms. Haley plays the range well.

Her moments with Norton (Rick Sebastian) are especially sweet. This is possibly Mr. Sebastian’s best role on the Theatre Conspiracy stage, as the gallant husband who supports his wife. When the two banter there are sparks, and it’s easy to believe they’re married to each other.

Stephen Hooper plays the couple’s sardonic lawyer, Sigsbee Scruggs. Though a good performer, opening night nerves seemed to get the best of him, and he wasn’t quite confident in his lines — not exactly a quality you want in a character who’s a silvertongued lawyer.

Karen Goldberg stands out in the role of Zelma, portraying her as a lumpy potato of a woman. Our introduction to her — she’s dressed in a raggedy bathrobe, sitting in her bathroom, slugging back whiskey — is priceless. Cantankerous and argumentative, Zelma just blurts out anything she feels. A conversation with her is like juggling with dynamite, because you never know what’s going to happen next.

The scenes with Zelma and Marjorie crackle with energy, making you wish for more, as the two former friends battle one another.

Not only was Zelma’s case against Ms. Rawlings a first — a private citizen claiming invasion of privacy — but her lawyer, Miss Kate (Tera Nicole Miller), was one of the first female lawyers in the state of Florida. Ms. Miller portrays her with the right blend of bravado and anxiety.

The courtroom scenes are intriguing and humorous, as first Zelma and then Ms. Rawlings take the stand. It’s to the playwright’s credit that we’re presented with arguments for both sides. The two lawyers’ tactics demonstrate that neither one is above using dirt and gossip to make a case.

Meager set, good costumes

The actors use the audience as their jury, addressing us as “gentlemen,” which can be a little jarring if you’re not that gender. But women were not allowed to serve on juries back in the ’40s.

I also wish I had 10 bucks for every time the phrases “Pulitzer Prize-winner,” “Yankee” and “outsider” were used. Because while Ms. Rawlings’ lawyer emphasizes her credentials, citing her many awards and honorary degrees, Zelma’s lawyer presents the writer as a carpetbagger, a Yankee who’s come down South “to try to tell us how to do things down here.” That’s a definite hot button for Southerners; just witness the myriad bumper stickers even today that say, “We don’t care how you did it up North.”

Mike Breen has a small role as Judge Murphree. He’s solemn enough, but his Southern accent comes and goes.

A partial reading of the play was held in May; director Bill Taylor was smart to keep the original cast from that reading. These actors, especially the four leads, have excellent chemistry together.

The set of Ms. Rawlings’ house cleverly turns into a courtroom mid-play. I only wish Mr. Taylor had put up a black curtain or created a false interior for the house; every time someone walked in or out, I could see an unpainted wood plank propping up the set, which disrupted the theater magic. The Spanish moss hanging from the proscenium was a nice touch.

Diana Waldier’s costumes are right on target, especially the women’s outfits: long dresses, hats and sturdy shoes, circa 1940s.

The pacing seemed a little off opening night, but I suspect that will improve as the run continues.

If you’re a Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings fan, you’ll want to see “Invasion of Privacy.” But even if you’ve never read “The Yearling,” this is an entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable play.

The opening night audience was almost a full house; if there’s any justice in the world, these actors will perform to full houses throughout the run of the show. ¦

in the know

>>What: “Invasion of Privacy” >>When: Through Oct. 22, with shows at

8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Oct. 16 >>Where: Theatre Conspiracy in the

Foulds Theatre at the Alliance of the Arts,

10091 McGregor Blvd., Fort Myers >>Cost: $18; Thursdays are buy one ticket, get one half off >>Info: 936-3239 or www.theatreconspiracy.org

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