Many of us recall reading Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Yearling, back in grade school. Her book Cross Creek, and its resulting lawsuit, are less familiar.
Written in 1942, Cross Creek chronicles the fishermen and other backwoods folks living near Rawlings’ home in Alachua County, Fla. Most of the 121 characters in the book were apparently fine with Rawlings’ descriptions of them, but one—Zelma Cason—took definite offense and decided to sue. The trial, which was the first of its kind in Florida, is the basis for Dezart Performs’ latest production, Invasion of Privacy.
In Cross Creek, Zelma is not pleased about being described as “an ageless spinster resembling an angry and efficient canary.” (I wouldn’t be pleased, either.) Rawlings goes on to say about Cason: “I cannot decide whether she should have been a man or a mother. She combines the more violent characteristics of both and those who ask for or accept her ministrations think nothing at being cursed loudly at the very instant of being tenderly fed, clothed, nursed or guided through their troubles.” Cason claimed Rawlings did not have permission to write about her and sued for libel and invasion of privacy. She requested an award of $100,000.
Larry Parr’s play is based on transcripts from the 1943 trial and interviews with Rawlings’ husband, Norton Baskin. It’s a bit of a Southern soap opera, filled with colorful, hard-to-forget characters.
The role of Marjorie is the glue that holds the entire production together. Gina Bikales captures the author’s strength and righteous anger over being told what she can and cannot write about, but her depiction of the Rawlings’ personal struggles—with booze and her often-absent husband—don’t ring as true. The opening scenes with Bikales and Peter Nicholson (Norton Baskin) lack chemistry. In fact, it’s not until near the end of the play that we see even a shred of Marjorie’s vulnerability. When she laments the death of her beloved dog and goes on about how much she misses him, we somehow just don’t believe it. Because Bikales has a strong stage presence and an animated face, the character would be more interesting and more likable if she toned things down just a bit; too much gesturing can get distracting. Sometimes, less is more. However, Bikales’ scenes with Louise Ross, as Zelma, are effective.
Ross—who stepped into the role three weeks ago when Blanche Mickelson (whose photo is featured prominently on the program and in press materials) had to withdraw for personal reasons—does a fine job. In her tacky, down-home outfits—the costumes are all terrific—Ross charms us as boozing, tough-talking Zelma, although Zelma could have used a bit more energy and fire at times (particularly in the courtroom scene at the end of Act 1). She shares some nice moments with Marjorie in her bathroom (it’s the only warm room in the house, you see) as the two women pass a bottle of whiskey back and forth and try to make up. Though Marjorie has come armed with an apology and a peace offering (a cake), the effort fails, and the former friends end up madder than ever.
Peter Nicholson holds his own as Rawlings’ other half, Norton. He’s likeable onstage, but he, like Bikales, could use a few more levels to his character. It occasionally comes across as a one-note performance.
Corbett Brattin is thoroughly entertaining as Rawlings’ good-ol’-boy lawyer, Sigsbee Scruggs. After failing to convince Rawlings and her husband to settle the case, Scruggs digs in to the task at hand, although he takes a brief detour from his dedication to the cause to flirt with his opposing counsel in the empty courtroom. His suggestion that she get to know the other male lawyers in town by going hunting with them brings a well-deserved laugh. Brattin’s performance is well-crafted and funny, and may well garner him the Desert Theatre League award win he’s so far been denied.
But the true jewel in the cast is Yo Younger as Zelma’s attorney, Kate Walton. Always a standout, Younger can command the audience’s attention simply by standing at the edge of the stage and gazing forward: You can’t take your eyes off her. Call it charisma; call it presence—whatever you call it, Younger has it. Her performance is passionate and strong, yet also vulnerable. When her character recounts the sting of being chastised by her family for even considering law as a career, and then being called a hillbilly by her law-school classmates, we feel every ounce of her pain. However, she’s always in control, and never pushes too hard. Younger splits her time between the valley and Los Angeles. Hopefully she will continue to share her acting talent with desert audiences for years to come.
In a small role as Judge John Murphree, Jason Lewis has some nice comic moments, particularly when he directs those in the courtroom to sit without uttering a word. However, he could pump up his energy level and vocal volume a bit.
The play is nicely directed by soap-opera and stage veteran Judith Chapman. She deftly captures the mood of backwoods Florida in the 1940s. The blocking seems to flow naturally, and Chapman generally keeps the action moving at a good pace (though a couple of scene changes lagged a bit). Having the audience double as the jury in the courtroom scenes, with the lawyers speaking directly to us, is quite effective.
The split set—one half Marjorie’s back porch, and the other the courtroom (and briefly Zelma’s bathroom)—works quite well.
Dezart and artistic director Michael Shaw have once again chosen an entertaining play that has a deeper message: Do we have a right to privacy? More than 70 years after the Cross Creek trial, the answer to that question seems more elusive than ever. Here in 2014—the “Age of Information”—privacy seems all but impossible.
The Rawlings legal case took more than four years with appeals. It also took a huge toll on the writer’s career—she only published one more full novel in the decade after the trial.
Dezart’s Invasion of Privacy is thought-provoking theater that will spark much debate on the ride home.
Dezart Performs’ production of Invasion of Privacy takes place at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 9, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Womans’ Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $22; or $18 for seniors, students and members of the military. Running time is two hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or go to www.dezartperforms.com.