“‘Willa Dee Arvis’ covers familiar territory, but often touches right chords
It’s been said that everyone is the star of the story of his own life, and Mark-Brian Sonna’s new play “A Moment in the Life of Willa Dee Arvis” sets out to prove that. Inspired by an actual obituary, Sonna constructed a story about the key event 60 years past that forever altered the trajectory of a woman’s life.
It’s the outbreak of World War II and Willa (Caryn Spaniel) has recently married Rayne (James Casarez Jr.), a brash young man 10 years her junior. Willa’s grandmother (Taylor Bunn) doesn’t approve of the match, which causes a rift in the family.
Willa and her cousin Emily (Paula Wood) were raised like sisters they’re so close, in fact, that Emily has married Rayne’s best friend, Clark (Jordan Willis). The boys have been inseparable for years, and their newlyweds have grown to understand that they spend a lot of time with each other. Now that they have both enlisted to fight, Willa and Emily pass the days talking about their men.
But the conversations of late have led the women to wonder about the depth of Clark and Rayne’s closeness. Why did they choose to spend their last night stateside with each other and not their wives? And why exactly does granny disapprove of them so?
You don’t need to have seen “Brokeback Mountain” to realize there’s something more to Clark and Rayne’s friendship that a mutual interest in sports.
But if “Willa Dee Arvis” seems a bit familiar, it is intentionally so. The audience figures out the Deep, Dark Secret well before the characters do, which adds a tragic layer to Willa and Emily’s ignorance. You feel for them as you felt for Ennis’ wife in “Brokeback” they are not villains, but victims of social conventions.
The main problems with the play are not in the plot but in the dialogue. Sonna, who has substantial experience acting in telenovelas (Mexican soap operas), tends to hammer some points too often. As with over-wrought melodrama, lines are endless repeated and stressed, and the play often founders from a lack of momentum as it tries to pull at the heartstrings and build tension.
Ultimately, however, the story succeeds in being genuinely affecting. That’s largely because of the performances of the women, who give their all sometimes too much of it for the smallish Stone Cottage Theatre. The interaction between Emily and Willa feels lived-in and authentic, and when the truth of their husbands’ lives begins to take root, their pain spreads throughout the audience.
Wood’s hysteria, while ear-splittingly loud, tugs at emotional chords. Spaniel delivers a dignified, fragile performance, while Bunn, who is clearly too young for the part, easily becomes the woman you love to hate.
Sonna, who also directed and plays a small part, conveys a strong sense for the period. The reactions to Clark and Rayne’s relationship including their own “on the down-low ” denials remind you of how far the public’s understanding of homosexuality has come, but also how terrible it was for generations of men and women. And how much further there still is to go.
Stone Cottage Theatre, 15650 Addison Road, Addison. Through Aug 5. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. $15-$20. 214-477-4942.
Stars of stage and screen
For regular North Texas theatergoers, names like John de los Santos, pictured left, Oscar Contreras and JR Ramirez will be familiar. De los Santos starred in “Mambo Italiano” at Uptown Players, and has danced in countless shows; Contreras and Ramirez have been seen in plays such as the campy delight, “Pico de Gallo.”
But now, even movie watchers who’ve never set foot in a live play get a chance to see them in action.
All three are featured in queer local filmmaker Israel Luna’s latest movie, “R U Invited?” The plot revolves around five gay men who receive invitations to a sex party but first must answer questionnaires that reveal their feelings about monogamy, personal hygiene and more.
The film screens this week as part of Fort Worth’s Q Cinema, and will include a reel of outtakes and bloopers from the shoot. Luna and some cast members will be in attendance for a post-screening Q&A session.
Four Day Weekend Theater, 312 Houston St., Fort Worth. July 26 at 8 p.m. $8. Qcinema.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, July 21, 2006.