Bryony Lavery did a bad thing eight years ago and she's still paying for it, which makes mounting the second production of her play Last Easter, now at Laguna Playhouse, more difficult than it otherwise would be.
Lavery's Frozen, the 1998 story of an unrepentant serial killer of children, didn't credit all her sources—namely, Dr. Dorothy Lewis, whose 25 years analyzing serial killers had been documented in a New Yorker profile the previous year. And after Lewis tried—and failed—to sue, she spread stories around the world branding Lavery as a thief.
"It's hard to know if this hurt my reputation, because I don't think of having a reputation," Lavery, 58, says by phone from England, in a voice more suited to serving tea than serving time. But it certainly slowed the progress of Last Easter, which had its world premiere off-Broadway in 2004, just as the scandal was breaking. It hasn't had a second production until this weekend, when it will open at the Laguna Playhouse.
Last Easter is another uncompromising script about people challenged to the ends of tolerance: a group of five friends who work in theater put their lives on hold to rally around June, a lighting designer diagnosed with cancer. All somewhere in their 30s or 40s, they have distanced themselves from deep pain until now; their support for June is as much to understand the center of their lives as to understand the end of hers.
"We're quite good at dealing with things that make sense," says Lavery, "but things that are senseless test us in ways that are just terrible." Lavery's artistry is in her dialogue, which her characters use to grapple with their confusion. Their fragmented speeches are sharp enough to cut. "I'm a real listener to how people talk," says Lavery. "I'm just in love with the construction of, well, non-sentences really. I like the rawness of honest speech." The raw honesty gets around to questions of God too.
"Somebody was saying to me that Last Easter is irreverent," she says. "And I said, 'No, it's very reverent about people's faith. But it's irreverent about people's behavior.' Some of the characters discover faith and some of them lose it. Human beings are different. I have a very mobile faith. I seem to always be trying to find answers to questions of immortality and mortality." Her tool is language, by which we explore the five friends' bond.
"What people in theater are supposed to do is make miraculous work," she says. "So in a bizarre way, through people who create illusions, and make what seems not possible possible, I am exploring the phenomena of religions and the nature of miracles. Which, in theater, we try and replicate in odd ways."
"We're making the light a character in the show," says Tom Ruzika, the show's lighting designer. "It's a very minimal production—no set, no props, no sound cues. Because there's the metaphor of light, staging is very limited. The set is designed to look like a big spotlight beam with a big oval on the floor as a pool of light."
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If the horrors of 2004 have been safely left behind, the Laguna production should be free to find an audience on the play's merits. Its honesty doesn't worry Laguna Playhouse executive director Richard Stein, who is directing the production.
"I have seen incredible change in our audiences in my 16 years here," he says. "And that's to be expected. Orange County has changed dramatically during that same period. Theatergoers are younger, more sophisticated and more willing to accept art that pushes their buttons."
Meanwhile, Lavery continues to seek forgiveness. Last Easter's comprehensive acknowledgments page stops just short of thanking her cat Ginger. "I'm trying to keep a constant vigilance," she says softly. "Trying to sort it out so it never happens again."
LAST EASTER AT LAGUNA PLAYHOUSE, 606 LAGUNA CANYON RD., LAGUNA BEACH, (949) 497-2787. PREVIEW PERFORMANCES CONTINUE THURS., APRIL 20, 2 & 8 P.M.; FRI., 8 P.M.; INVITATION-ONLY OPENING SAT. SHOW TIMES FOR THE REGULAR RUN: TUES.-FRI., 8 P.M.; SAT., 2 & 8 P.M.; SUN., 2 P.M. THROUGH MAY 21. $20-$59.