Arts preview: "Coast of Illyria" examines siblings' struggles

Jim Fischer

Mary and Charles Lamb loved each other, relied on each other, maybe even needed each other.

Whether there is a point at which these things become unsustainable in a relationship is a key element in the Ohio State University Department of Theatre production of "The Coast of Illyria," based on the real-life brother and sister best-known for co-writing the 1807 children's book "Tales from Shakespeare."

Art, friendship, addiction and mental illness shape the Lambs' relationship in this Jennifer Schlueter/Cece Bellomy adaptation of the play by Dorothy Parker and Ross Evans.

Mary suffers from mental illness and Charles from alcoholism, yet they prove to be indispensable to one another.

"He drinks her to madness, and her madness drives him to drink," said Ambre Shoneff, who plays Mary in this production.

The siblings' mutual reliance began at an early age. Charles was much younger than Mary, who in many ways helped raise her brother. Gradually, Charles became a caretaker of sorts for Mary as her mental illness - which was so serious as to drive her to kill their mother in a fit of rage - made her life more and more difficult.

"My approach in this, as with any play, was to ask, 'What are the human relationships and how do they affect us as humans regardless of time period and circumstance?'" director Shilarna Stokes, assistant professor of theatre, said.

"The Coast of Illyria" opens as Mary is returning home from one of her stays at an infamous London asylum where she has been confined since the murder of her mother. Charles is in a serious relationship with stylish young actress Fanny Kelly, a relationship he begins to see will be impacted by his responsibility to his sister.

"He knows he is the last lifeline for his sister, and it challenges his priorities," said Zack Meyer, who plays Charles. "The play has these breaks at which you're asked, 'What is too much to expect a person to handle?'"

"[Mary] loves her brother in a very deep way; they have a strong love for each other," Shoneff said. "They're each coping [and] supporting one another."

"Mary doesn't want to have to need Charles, in fact, she even says so at one point in the play," Meyer said.

Shoneff said one of her goals in the portrayal is to "defend and protect [Mary's] dignity, despite her mental struggles."

Associate professor Jennifer Schlueter was tasked with the adaptation, her first charge being to pare down Parker's original work, a three-act script that clocks in at three-plus hours. (Schlueter enlisted theatre student Cece Bellomy's assistance for this work.)

She also reinforced that Parker's script, and this adaptation, while based on actual people and actual events, is not strictly biography.

"I have said that if nobody ever knew that these were real people they would still love the play," Stokes said.

"I adore Parker's writing," Schlueter said, pointing out that the writer identified closely with Mary Lamb, even telling her first cast "Iam Mary Lamb."

Schlueter said her adaptation provides clarity on certain issues while maintaining the developmental aspects on the plot.

"I wanted to take the anxieties and concerns of Mary and bring them to the foreground," she said. "And there are also glimmers in Parker's script that Mary is aware that she is an 18th-century woman writer, and what tensions this creates for her."

Stokes said the time period is important in understanding how the characters relate to one another.

"The time period in which the play is set (the early 19th century) is not something people know about outside of Jane Austen movies," Stokes said with a laugh. "While the play is largely driven by Dorothy Parker's own personality, there is a need to understand the historical specificity. To understand what addiction and mental illness mean, how people interact, and what friendship means."

"The play is not about people's issues, but about dealing with them on a human level," Mayer said. "It revolves around compassion and love for other people. The production does a great job of connecting these characters to being real people and not just archetypes."

Both Shoneff and Meyer pointed out the lighter notes of the play, in particular some of the secondary characters, including Fanny Kelly and her mother, who visits the Lambs to test their fitness for her daughter and finds herself in the company of artists whose tendencies often don't match her conservative nature.

"The friends of the Lambs are artists, and very eccentric," Shoneff said.

Other characters include friends George Dyer and S.T. Coleridge, characters who bring a "delightful and bizarre touch" to the play, Schlueter said.

"What I love about the play is that all of the people in it think they're in a romantic comedy," Stokes said. "They try very hard to keep it light, but it turns out to be anything but that."

Thurber Theatre, Drake Performance and Event Center

7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, April 14-16; 3 p.m. Sunday, April 17; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, April 19-21

1849 Cannon Dr., Campus