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Tortoise Interference

Slow But Steady Wins the Stage in Anne Lefter's Turtle Soup

Out of their Shells: (from left) Debbie Bennett, Janel Miley, Deborah Gordon, and Diana Cantrelle bond in Turtle Soup.

By John Barry | Posted 7/23/2003

Turtle Soup

Anne Lefter

Whenever a playwright sticks four friends in one house for an extended period of time, you know things are going to boil over. The production of Anne Lefter's Turtle Soup for the Baltimore Playwrights Festival doesn't quite blow the lid off the pot, but as the story progresses conversation turns gradually from fruit salad to terminal illness. A slow opening scene shifts gears, relationships intensify, and soul-searching begins. All because of a turtle.

Nina (Debbie Bennett), Ginny (Diana Cantrelle), and Dee (Deborah Gordon) are three middle-aged artists. Nina's an actress, Ginny is a mezzo-soprano, and Dee is an ex-ballerina, and together they're making a foray into the mountains of West Virginia. Nina has brought along a young writer, Lorelai (Janel Miley), a self-effacing, shy novice who's not exactly sure why she's been invited.

Pretty soon, though, she finds out whose shoes she has to fill. Eight years earlier, it seems, the fourth member of the quartet was Sarah, a talented pianist who died of breast cancer. The three older women speak of her with subdued reverence, which leaves Lorelai a little uneasy. But they want her to become one of the girls. And when Lorelai is invited to accompany Ginny on the piano, as Ginny belts out Madame Butterfly, it seems that the initiation is complete.

Enter the turtle. Somewhere down the mountain, a crusty old man is keeping a caged turtle for wildlife tracking. After engaging in a brief cultural critique and a few half-baked leaps in logic, the ladies decide to liberate the turtle, which has become a stand-in for what Nina calls the "dark continent of women's sexuality." In a common surge of idealism, they drag Lorelai with them down the river to open the cage. The problem is, no one asked the turtle if that's what it wants.

What ensues is an emotional and spiritual entanglement along the road to--you got it--personal empowerment in the face of great odds. The leap between turtle and terminal illness and sexuality is a little far-fetched, but it starts the ball rolling. The friendships aren't necessarily threatened by the progression of events, but Lorelai and the others find themselves juggling their relationships and re-evaluating their lives well enough.

Those transformations are what carry the play. In a strong performance as Lorelai, Janel Miley enters the play as a distant satellite, but by the end everything revolves around her. That's a little unsettling for Ginny, who seems to assume that she is the center of everything, and in that role Cantrelle steals the show: Not only is Cantrelle a real opera singer, but as an actress she's a forceful presence who manages to fill in the occasional moments of dead air.

Anne Lefter is a capable dramatist who succeeds in keeping the play moving. What robs the play of some of its intensity may be the fact that the most essential character never appears onstage. Sarah has been dead for eight years, and if what the characters say is true, the most fascinating and powerful relationships were built around her. It leaves us with the impression that we've intervened in the middle of an eight-year wake, complete with toasts to the deceased.

But Lefter seems determined to bring the action back onstage and, in the end, she does. Once the vague memories and the totemic turtle have been squeezed out, the play turns into a sudden, sharp revelation that seems to leave the audience wanting just a little more. As Ginny says of Sarah, "She knew exactly when to stop." So does Lefter.

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