As a theatre critic, I have to say that I found "In a Lake of Fire" a very powerful piece of theatre. Probably one of the best theatrical experiences that I have had in a long time. The acting, the singing, the set, the lights, the music all blended together seamlessly. It was extremely well crafted. Everyone involved is obviously very talented.
Then I went home and went to bed and found myself waking up every hour on the hour with one phrase going through my head "You do not write shows about dead babies!" It does not matter whether you write a good show or a bad show. This happens to be a very good show, but it is a very bad thing altogether.
Awake and using my logical mind I know that there have been many shows essentially written about "dead babies". Greek tragedy is full of them. However, in Greek tragedy the protagonist always suffers from a fatal flaw in his or her character that causes all the bad things to happen. There is a moral to the story. If only we refrain from jealously or pride or envy or lust we can prevent these terrible things from happening. The Susan Smith story does not offer any such redeeming ideas for us to take home.
While playwright Marjorie Duffield (Williams '85) has given her central character the name of Laurieanne, there is absolutely no mistaking that this is Susan Smith. The women share identical stories and Phoebe Geer looks so exactly like Smith that it is eerie. I suspect that Duffield and composer Greg Pliska (Williams '84) changed the character's name simply to make rhyming the lyrics easier.
Anxious to get away from a step-father who may or may not have been molesting her (Smith's step-father did molester her - Duffield is far less clear in her script), Laurieanne forces her boss, the manager of the local supermarket where she is a check-out girl, to marry her when she becomes pregnant. By the time she is twenty they have a second son, and by the time she is twenty-two they are divorced and she has failed in her attempt to get the boss's son to marry her. It is at this point that she takes her children's lives. While I know that Smith was suicidal and made some attempts to kill herself in her teens, this is not explored in Duffield's script.
In a powerful trio for the step-father (Rob Seitelman), Jed (Robert McElmurry), and Junior, the boss's son, (Alex Lees) Duffield and Pliska infer that Laurieanne is the way she is because all the men in her life failed her. But saying that you can go ahead and kill your sons because men are jerks is ludicrous.
Another avenue explored is the "nothingness" of life in rural South Carolina. Duffield spent time in Union, South Carolina, and is on record as saying, "There was nothing to do and nowhere to go. And I imagined perhaps that is what [Smith] ultimately felt the night of the crime: nothingness. Did that nothingness 'allow' her to do what she did?" Well, I hope not! Life is basically a lot of nothing most of the time. Either we should all just turn around and shoot each other dead right now, or we should get on with it and stop whining.
You do not write shows about dead babies. You do not write shows that make the audience sit gripping the arms of their chairs wishing it was over. Have you any idea how awful the words "Seat belts! Buckle up!" can be?? Sensible people, not theatre critics like me who don't have any choice, should not go to shows that are that painful.
You do not write shows about dead babies. While this Williamstheatre production is all very pure in an artistic sense, the ultimate goal of a piece of professional theatre is to make money. You do not make money off of dead babies and other people's misery.
I hope that Duffield and Pliska and all the other talented people involved in this show find other ways to use those talents. Let the Smith boys rest in peace.
The Williamstheatre production of "In a Lake of Fire" will be performed May 4-6 at 8 p.m. on the MainStage of the Adams Memorial Theatre, 1000 Main Street in Williamstown. The show runs an hour and 20 minutes with no intermission. For tickets and information call 413-597-2425.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2000