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Bringing art to Nashville

By Lisa A. DuBois

AUGUST 10, 1998:  In this decade alone, new theater groups have emerged and fizzled in Nashville like so many moths drawn to a flame. At the outset, such groups are driven by a higher cause: a desire to bring art to a city far more interested in NASCAR and arena football. Like clockwork, one upstart theater after another ends up falling prey to financial pressures and apathetic audiences. Yet still they keep coming.

Evans Donnell, a native of Music City, is familiar with the odds, yet he has decided to plow ahead on his own terms. His new company, AthensSouth, hits the boards not with a smart-mouthed farcical comedy or a dog-eared song-and-dance show, but with the high-voltage contemporary drama Skylight, which runs for three weekends beginning Aug. 7 at Eakin Elementary School auditorium. "I wanted to put something out on the menu that's different from what I've been seeing lately," he says, "[something] that you normally don't see around here."

An import from London's Royal National Theatre, where it opened in 1995, Skylight later moved to that city's West End theater district, ultimately garnering the Olivier and Evening Standard Awards for Best Play. The following year, it was transported to Broadway, receiving critical acclaim and a Tony Award nomination for best play. Subsequently, such prestigious regional venues as Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, Washington's Arena Stage, and Berkeley Repertory Theatre have mounted successful productions. In fact, to stage his low-budget local premiere, Donnell had to receive special permission from the playwright, David Hare (Racing Demon).

Set in a cramped flat during a bleak London winter, Skylight exposes the raw sinews that connect three people who had once been part of a cozy family a family that was, in reality, as fragile as a house of cards. Several years before, Alice Sergeant, wife of wealthy middle-aged restaurateur Tom Sergeant, had brought a lonely waitress into their expansive home. Broke and appreciative, Kyra Hollis welcomed the chance to belong somewhere, to baby-sit the Sergeant's son Edward, and to participate in the daily upscale activities enjoyed by her guardians. Shortly after moving in, however, she began a love affair with Tom that lasted six years, ending only when Alice discovered the tryst. Kyra left in disgrace, disappearing back into the city.

The play opens three years later in Kyra's desolate apartment. She has gotten a position teaching children from the London slums, trying to salvage displaced youngsters one life at a time. Alice has recently died of cancer after a long and stoic decline. Edward, now 18 and estranged from his father, has grown moody and impulsive. Tom, depressed and lonely, revels only in the shallow pleasure that he's getting richer by the minute. During the course of the play, the surviving triumvirate unites for one last meeting.

Donnell, who's directing the play, has cast three veteran actors in these demanding roles. Jill Massie portrays Kyra, Jim Wright is Tom, and Mark Gaddis is Edward.

"This show deals with the sacrifice in loving someone," Donnell says. "The main reason I picked this play is because nobody gets away with anything. It's a modern, complex morality play. At first blush, [Tom and Kyra] are paying for having had an affair. But the play reminds us that every one of us is fallible. It's not about being judgmental. It's about looking at this weird foursome and their shattered remains."

If the storyline seems similar to those composed by American playwright Tennessee Williams, it is only an echo. Hare's language is less floral and poetic, his characters less eccentric and bitter. In Skylight, Hare's dialogue skips and bounces, punches and soothes, as these intensely needy characters attempt to define how they truly feel about each other, now that so much has changed. Kyra is struggling to make it alone, to find a sense of purpose working in the inner-city. Edward is trapped between being a man and a child, longing to reconcile with his father but demanding a chance to spread his wings. Tom, on the other hand, just wants everything back the way it once was, and he's willing to pay good money to make that happen.

"Tom is a sad and pathetic character," Donnell says. "He's from a working-class family, and he became rich. But what's he got for it at the end of the day? A big lonely house in Wimbledon, a son who won't talk to him, a wife that's dead, and a lover who's gone.

"Another thing I like about this play is that there's ambiguity, just like in real life. At the end nothing is tied up. There's just a little bit of healing and a little bit of forgiveness."

AthensSouth presents David Hare's drama "Skylight." Web site: http://www.mindspring.com/~athenssouth.

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