Portraits of Resilience and Love Onstage at Dallas Theaters

Natalie Young - Photo by Evan Michael Woods
Evan Michael Woods

All's fair in love and war, except when it's not. Two plays at Dallas area theaters explore the forgotten stories of war's cruelties and the redefinition of love.

Second Thought Theatre presents the area premiere of Cordelia Lynn's "Lela & Co" from April 3-27 at Bryant Hall on the Kalita Humphreys Campus. WingSpan Theatre Company offers a staged reading of Germaine Shames' new play "The Higher Love" at The Bath House Cultural Center on March 29 and 30.

In "Lela & Co", the title character is a vibrant young woman, eager to tell her story as truthfully as she can. Lela's story is complex and painful, a fairytale that has gone horribly wrong. Set in an unnamed war-torn country, the teenager leaves her mountain village to marry a businessman who lives in a seaside city. War rages on the streets and as her husband's business flounders, he views Lela more as a commodity than a life partner. Despite the trauma and loneliness, Lela finds her resilient voice.

"I would say that this a beautiful, shocking, horrifying, humorous, uplifting story about one woman's quest to live a generous life, specifically, and the human capacity for survival and love, universally," Kara-Lynn Vaeni, the show's director, said.

The show is described as a monologue, but the cast consists of two actors. Garret Storms plays all the men in Lela's life, interrupting her as they attempt to define or correct her version of events. Lela's world is a patriarchal society, but she has developed strategies to evade men's attempts to silence her.

"She smiles politely and waits him out and then goes on as if she weren't interrupted. She tells a joke, takes back the attention of the audience, and goes on her way. She waits until he leaves and then says what she likes. She talks over him. She talks under him. She talks around him," Vaeni said.

Lela's story is too common for women enduring war in male-dominated societies. Her story is about perseverance, not anger or vengeance.

"What I admire and love and respect about Lela is that she never gives in to despair. She figures out how to survive and she does it. And not just her physical survival; she figures out how to keep her soul intact. She doesn't shut down, she doesn't get hardened and cynical or turn into a man hater or anything. She keeps her sense of the ridiculous alive and I think it saves her life," Vaeni said. "She is amazing."

WingSpan Theatre Company

"The Prophet" has sold more than 100 million copies and has never been out of print, but it's the story of the popular book's author, Kahlil Gibran, and his relationship with his patron, Mary Elizabeth Haskell that is at the center of "The Higher Love".

Playwright Germaine Shames has been corresponding with Susan Sargeant, WingSpan Theatre Company's Producing Artistic Director, for five years as she developed this play-within-a-play. Shames holds a master's degree in Intercultural Studies and uses her worldview to craft plays reflecting on the interplay between cultures.

In "The Higher Love," she imagines two actors preparing to play Gibran and Haskell. The actor struggle with these historic characters, attempting to understand the meaning of love and preparing for a passion stage kiss.

This reading is the next stage of the play's development. Shames will be in town for the readings and Sargeant has planned talkbacks for the audience to provide feedback.

"I'm hoping for Germaine to further hone it and for the audience to be part of the discussion so that she's be able to lift her play further," Sargeant said.

Lulu Ward, the show's director, developed a fascination with Gibran and Haskell.

"The first thing it did was take me down this incredible rabbit hole. I found this subject to be so huge and I'm sure Germaine had the same problem. You could write three plays about this man depending on what direction you wanted to take it," Ward said. "I wanted to answer the questions what is the higher love and what was their relationship?"

Gibran immigrated from Lebanon to the United States with his mother and siblings in 1895 when American philanthropists educated Middle Eastern immigrants. He met Haskell in 1904 and she became his patron, paying for him to study art in Paris. Their relationship was more than financial. Haskell's journals document a passionate emotional bond. Gibran wanted to marry Haskell, but Haskell, a decade older than Gibran and aware of societal conventions, hesitated. "You have someone you're so close to. If we have sex, are we going to ruin it?" Ward said.

In 1911, Haskell made her final decision not to marry Gibran, becoming closer to him while simultaneously supporting him as he created his masterpiece.

"It seemed to me that it was the moment of opening of the door between Kahlil and the world that shall love him and into whose heart he shall surely feel his is pouring his work. I think his future is not far away now," Haskell wrote in her journal.

This selfless love is the higher love. "Beyond any other coupling, they were for each other, soul for soul," Ward said.

MORE: "Lela & Co" at Second Thought Theatre

MORE: "The Higher Love" at WingSpan Theatre Company

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