Burning in a ‘Lake of Fire’

When I walked away thoroughly disgusted after seeing a run-through of the musical In a Lake of Fire a few weeks ago, I decided I had better see a full-fledged performance of the piece with all the lights, music and multimedia it had to offer. And that I did. Unfortunately, I still found the musical to be a disrespectful and rude mockery of a tragic crime that took place in South Carolina in 1994.

Don’t get me wrong: director Jean-Bernard Bucky did what I would consider a good job, making several interesting blocking decisions. I found the lighting design by Ellen Jones to be noteworthy throughout; the vocal talents of the cast were impressive, particularly those of Emily Stone Glenn ’03 and Rachael Holmes ’03; and as is the case with a typical musical, there were a few songs I might find myself singing within the comfort of my room and other songs I would care not to hear again. The performance I saw Friday night was, for the most part, good.

My issue, however, is with Marjorie Duffield ’85 and Greg Pliska ’84, who felt a heinous crime that had the stench of a tabloid article – one that not only demonstrated the downfall of the American family but also the ever-present racial divide within the United States – could be transformed into a musical with some sort of entertainment value. If you read the wonderful little blurb that sat on the Williams College homepage about the piece, you would have learned that Duffield’s intent behind the play was to “explore the themes of unraveling, the erosion of self and the repercussions of lies.” Moreover, Duffield “spent time in Union, South Carolina” to effectively write a play that represented the context of the crime. Perhaps letting it remain solely a play would have achieved this.

The play, which I presume was meant to focus on the character Laurianne and the downward spiral that led her to murder her two sons, became a musical that focused on a semi-defunct small-town community, with the background history of Laurianne and ex-husband Jed and the subtext of an inappropriate relationship between Laurianne and her stepfather thrown in as filler. Thus, I saw no true exploration of “unraveling” and “the erosion of self.” Rather than being a consequence of bad acting, it was the product of inadequate writing, which I fear was the unfortunate result when the play was transformed into a musical.

Finally, I found the play’s call to the racial divide that allowed Laurianne’s claim that a black man “stole her babies” as believable to be personally insulting. As it was phrased in the play: “There’s no better alibi than a black man. He’s always under suspicion – every day, every hour. It’s automatic. Anything a black man does is suspicious, even when he’s standing in front of his own damn house.” Perhaps it would have been more interesting if a white character in the musical rather than a black character said it, but I found it to be a puerile and hackneyed declaration that did nothing to inspire any critical thinking on the part of any member of the audience.

When In a Lake of Fire failed in its mission to explore the psychological and emotional despair of Laurianne, it did a grave injustice to the story upon which it was based, and trivialized the heartbreaking murder of two sons by their own mother. Being a Williams student and a theater major myself, I was moreover disappointed in Duffield and Pliska’s failure to respect the delicate nature of the story and marginally dismayed with the Williams College Theater Department for producing it.