In a Lake of Fire exploits Smith story to unsuccessful ends

Daily Advisor ads for Williamstheatre’s recent production of In a Lake of Fire, written by Greg Pliska ’84 and Marjorie Duffield ’85, described the production as a work of musical theatre based on the true story of Susan Smith, the young woman who claimed national headlines several years ago when she was found guilty of shoving her car into a lake with her two young children strapped into the back seat. In reality, the production – which never achieves the dramatic depth or psychological complexity of anything resembling real life – would be better described as exploiting the true story of Susan Smith.

Certainly, the Smith story is essential to the production’s success, such as it is: to anyone unfamiliar with the basic outlines of the Smith story, In a Lake of Fire would be utterly incomprehensible. Having made use of the basic plot elements of the Smith story, however, the writers of the play then discard it, not seeming to feel any responsibility to present that story in a way that does justice to its difficulties and its nuances. Instead, they rename the main characters (Smith is represented by a young woman named Laurianne), locate the story in an anonymous small town, gloss over or ignore many of the crucial problems presented by the actual case, and come up with a jerky, overly simplified and blatantly manipulative piece of theatrical sensationalism – a Movie of the Week with breaks for musical numbers.

I don’t know many of the details about the actual Smith case, and my primary concern with the production was not that it adhere to the facts as they occurred. I am a firm believer in the potential of theatre to contribute to the public understanding of social issues, even if that contribution fictionalizes or refashions actual events. In fact, I believe that a powerful, thought-provoking play, and perhaps even a musical, could be written about the Susan Smith case. In a Lake of Fire, however, is not that play.

The production begins with Laurianne’s (Phoebe Geer ’01) announcement that her two young sons have been kidnapped – taken from her car by a black man who attacked when the car was stopped at a deserted intersection. News of the kidnapping races through Laurianne’s small hometown, causing a mass outcry for justice. This scenario – the racially fueled outrage of a community at the loss of two of its own children – provides ample dramatic material for an entire play, and the first company musical number, staged beautifully by director Bernie Bucky, does an excellent job of capturing the hysteria, compassion, bravery and anger Laurianne’s announcement provokes. Immediately after this promising start, however, the play turns to its real purpose: vindicating its murderous (albeit put-upon) heroine through a dizzying sequence of flashbacks, all designed to show, as quickly as possible, just how difficult her life has been.

This is a disastrous approach. The various events – Laurianne’s incestuous relationship with her stepfather (played with ineffectual bluster by Rob Seitelman ’01), her shotgun wedding to a handsome but unreliable boyfriend (nicely portrayed, given the poorly drawn character, by Rob McElmurry ’02), the rapid birth of two children, her husband’s infidelity, the collapse of her marriage, her struggles as a single parent, her insincere new boyfriend, etc. etc. etc. – are in fact quite serious and profound ones. I could well believe that a woman in such circumstances would be driven to horrible extremes. But the events are presented so quickly, in a kind of dramatic shorthand, that none of them achieve any sort of resonance. At best, the rapidity of disasters creates a kind of emotional numbness in the audience (how much more, we wonder in a detached sort of way, can the woman take?). At worst, it verges on the inappropriately humorous.

As with their sneaky invocation/noninvocation of the Smith story, the writers rely far too much on what they expect their audience to know – and then fail to expand upon or complicate those bits of knowledge. In the case of the stepfather, for instance, we are clearly meant to infer from his initial remarks about the teenage Laurianne that his relationship to her is more than parental. “Ah, yes,” we think. “The abusive stepdad.” It’s a familiar figure, a cliché, really, and no effort is made to develop the character of the stepfather or his relationship to Laurianne beyond the level of cliché.

As a result, we have a hard time gauging the emotional weight of that relationship. Only once, in fact, do we see Laurianne talking to her stepfather about it. She seems upset, sure, but does she hate him? Feel guilty or complicit? Feel attracted to him? Who knows – and, as an unfortunate result of this uncertainty, who cares? The other elements of Laurianne’s past are dealt with in the same generalized, undeveloped manner, so that what we are left with ultimately is a litany of predictable and not terribly interesting personal tragedies – none of which add anything substantial to our understanding of Laurianne or her world.

There are positive elements in the production. As mentioned before, Professor Bucky’s direction, especially in the large group scenes, is frequently quite striking visually, and he draws relatively good performances out of actors struggling with seriously underdeveloped parts.

The music, written by Pliska, is emotionally, dramatically and artistically sophisticated and in some numbers, such as Laurianne’s final lament for her dead sons, heartwrenchingly beautiful. (It is not clear, however, why Pliska chose to compose in so many different musical genres – the rapid transitions from ballad to showtune to jazz to gospel contribute to the play’s lack of coherence). The set is also nicely designed and constructed. Its simple structure provides one of the few elements of continuity in a play with almost no consistency.

The final and most important consistent strength of the production is Phoebe Geer’s performance in the lead role. Amazingly, considering the vast psychological ground the script requires her to traverse and the lack of textual support it provides for that movement, Geer makes Laurianne into a highly believable human being – the only one in the play. She avoids the temptation to make Laurianne into either a martyr or a demon and manages to be quite convincing in an extremely difficult role. She plays Laurianne as both an impetuous child and a wounded, angry woman, never allowing the balance to shift too far in either direction. Other actors, notably Jake Jeffries ’01 as the sheriff in charge of the case and Dana Nelson ’02 as his deputy, also offer nice, well-tempered performances.

Ultimately, however, these strengths are not sufficient to make up for the weakness of the script. As if to compensate for the lack of substance below its surface, the production is loaded down with extraneous elements – video clips, slides and a mute, dancing alter ego for Geer’s Laurianne (Alana Belfield ’01) – most of which prove simply distracting. These touches, particularly the video and the dancing alter ego, are frequently pedantic as well. In case we don’t understand that Laurianne is feeling defensive in a particular conversation with her mother (a fact that Geer’s face and posture convey quite adequately and poignantly), we have the alter-ego standing on the other side of the stage, her arm extended in a “stop” motion.

Likewise, the video shots of townspeople’s sad, pensive faces seem designed to help those of us who hadn’t realized that the drowning of Laurianne’s children is a tragedy. Such assaults on subtlety merely take up time and space in a production that could use a little more time and space devoted to acting and character development.

Perhaps what is most troubling about In a Lake of Fire is that it purports to be a sort of morality tale. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” the program notes preach. Well, yes, as one audience member remarked, but I didn’t kill my kids. Furthermore, if the play were to succeed in compelling its audience to look more closely at the ways in which we are all complicit in the deaths of children and the subjection of women, it would have to work much harder to provide a problematic and complex account of Laurianne’s actions.

But this is a play that shies away from complexity and difficulty. Issues like the racism inherent in Laurianne’s original accusation, the social structures that make it impossible to raise children alone, and the gender assumptions that lead us to believe no natural woman could ever kill her children are addressed in a single four-line stanza or a two-minute vignette, or not at all. The production skims blithely over the surface of the troubled waters it purports to plumb.

The final number, a genuinely moving and spectacular gospel extravaganza of redemption and forgiveness, therefore seems disingenuous, unjustifiable and wildly inappropriate. Who, the audience is left to wonder, has been redeemed? Are we supposed to allow ourselves to be lulled by the music into thinking that things are in fact resolved, that the story has been told and a kind of peace has been achieved? The gospel rhythms sway and the high notes soar as various chorus members wail out words of forgiveness and acceptance. Laurianne, a convicted murderer now, stands silent to the side – discarded by the play much in the way that Susan Smith and her real-life tragedy are.

But, oh, those gorgeous voices, that infectious beat, that catchy tune. This is the age of Oprah and of Rosie O’Donnell, of moral uplift offered in convenient, sitcom-length portions – why worry about murdered children, troubled marriages and violent, shattered mothers so long as we get to go home feeling good?