In A.R. Gurney’s popular play “Love Letters,” an actor and an actress sit on a bare stage for a couple of hours literally reading from a lifetime of correspondence between their two characters — in the process, essentially challenging the widely held belief that actions speak louder than words.
Natalie Symons’ “Lark Eden” takes a similar approach in detailing the enduring friendship of three women who grow up together in a small Georgia town. They eventually go their separate ways, but over the course of 75 years, they remain devoted pen pals.
Despite a few scenes in which the characters really interact, for the most part Symons’ script is a series of alternating monologues. Reciting highlighted portions of their many letters to one another, they recount the sundry ups and downs of their lives and otherwise keep in touch.
Aurora Theatre’s production of the nostalgic comedy takes place on a simply sumptuous set (designed by Lizz Dorsey) that gives each of the women a respective front porch on which to basically stand around talking to herself about all the family members and pivotal moments that we never see for ourselves in the play.
The ensemble features Naima Carter Russell as Emily, who marries a traveling salesman and settles in a Florida trailer park. Rachel Garner is Mary, who moves to Alabama to care for a pair of ailing relatives. Minka Wiltz portrays Thelma, who stays in Lark Eden, content to raise her own family there.
They’re competent actresses all; Wiltz, in particular, shines (her recurring Christmas card greetings are priceless). Still, with no professional ambitions to speak of and only sketchy personalities to begin with, the characters aren’t compelling enough as individual identities to warrant much attention as a supposedly bonded sisterhood.
Oddly, while Aurora is touting its show as the product of an all-female cast and crew, “Lark Eden” feels more like an old-fashioned three-hanky tearjerker than any kind of broader or deeper statement about empowerment, feminist or otherwise.
At the helm is a fine director, Melissa Foulger (“Flyin’ West”), but there’s a static, sluggish quality to her pacing and blocking here that grows wearisome the longer the play goes (without intermission). With minimal changes in costumes or makeup, the passage of time in the story is especially fuzzy, although sound designer Angie Bryant’s period songs and radio broadcasts occasionally mark momentous events like the attack on Pearl Harbor or the JFK assassination.
Symons’ script doesn’t play the proverbial race card, but Foulger’s staging of it does, to problematic effect. That co-stars Russell and Wiltz happen to be black, and Garner white, somehow discredits the very idea that these three characters might have met attending the same elementary school in the Depression-era Deep South, or that there would be nary a mention among them of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
There’s nothing so profound about “Lark Eden” to back up that casting choice, which renders it less a provocative commentary than a pretentious gimmick.