Longacre Lea's Latest: From Absurd to Magical

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 13, 2008

In a kind of tectonic shift for her Longacre Lea company, Kathleen Akerley has written a play, "Theories of the Sun," that she sees as "much more magical realism than absurdism." The new work runs through Sept. 7 at the Callan Theatre at Catholic University.

Each summer the members of Longacre Lea converge to test their chops against the brainiest avant-garde plays by the likes of Stoppard, Pinter and Ionesco. But Akerley's play is different.

"More than one actor said to me, 'This is actually fairly realistic, Kathleen.' I think they were fairly taken aback," she says. Akerley drolly quotes cast member Michael Glenn, who remarked to her that in non-absurdist plays, "when you have a 'problem scene,' you can't solve it by hopping around on one foot."

Even so, "Theories of the Sun," co-directed by Akerley and Jonathon Church, is hardly mundane. It takes place in a lonely French hotel in 1963, where the guests include a young Tom Stoppard and a sozzled Tennessee Williams. An American mother and daughter arrive to meet secretly with a doctor who specializes in impossible-to-diagnose diseases. A mysterious man wafts through the place, visible to only one guest. When people order from the menu, the food names are phrases from poems, such as a fish dish called "goldengrove unleaving," taken from Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Spring and Fall."

Like the play itself, the poems are about death. Akerley says she's not trying to be precious; "I wanted to pepper that kind of imagery through it in ways that were not heavy-handed, but were just available for the person who recognizes it to enjoy another layer of meaning."

She was inspired in part by Stoppard's "Travesties," which throws together dadaist Tristan Tzara, James Joyce and Lenin. Her other inspiration was her mother, who died suddenly in 2001.

"It's a little bit an ode to my mom -- just writing a little bit about the mother-daughter relationship and the kind of really very elegant things she taught me about life attitude," Akerley says. Often, as she wrote the play, she says, "I was crying so hard my neck was wet."

That could be taken, she continues, as evidence that "you're writing from somewhere you should be writing from . . . or I just need therapy."

Keegan Packs 'Em In

Artistic Director Mark Rhea says the fates seem to be smiling on Keegan Theatre after a series of well-attended shows, including "Man of La Mancha," which runs through Saturday.

Rhea first saw an uptick in attendance this spring for his staging of Brian Friel's "Translations," a poetic tale of early 19th-century Donegal. "Here I am, directing a play I love so much, thinking, is it going to sell?" Rhea says. It did as well as Keegan's winter show, Brendan Behan's "The Hostage," averaging about 70 percent of capacity, he says. The company recently announced its upcoming season (see box).

Keegan, which specializes in Irish plays but also does Mamet, Shepard, Tennessee Williams and the new plays of company member Eric Lucas, began life in an Arlington church basement in 1996 and lost what had briefly looked like a permanent home in 2005. Since then, the company has divided its work between the Church Street Theater for larger shows and Arlington County's tiny Theatre on the Run for bare-bones works by the troupe's edgier New Island Project.

"We're starting to get more locals" at Church Street, Rhea says. "We're starting to be more solid there. And with 'La Mancha,' we don't know if it's the show, or we're starting to burst out here. It's kind of almost overwhelming, the response we're getting right now."

Keegan sails on the energy of two acting-directing couples -- Mark and Susan Marie Rhea, and Eric Lucas and Kerry Waters Lucas. "I think it's incredibly enriching to . . . share the same passion about something," says Susan Marie Rhea.

The Lucases are the engine behind the New Island shows (Marie Jones's "Stones in His Pockets" runs there through Aug. 23). They work on Keegan's larger shows, too. Eric Lucas is also a carpenter and constructs sets for other theaters. "Kerry and I try to keep it low-key enough so we're not going insane," he says of their New Island work.

Kerry Waters Lucas says the Keegan couples and the larger company, including designers who often volunteer their time, are unique. "Their motivation is for the group, for the play, for the love of what we do," she says, "and it maybe sounds a little corny, but it's the truth. And hopefully my saying it isn't going to jinx it."

Mark Rhea thinks recent experience proves a non-Equity company like Keegan can flourish on a small budget. Whatever happens, he says, "I can't imagine doing anything else."

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