One night stand-off

Lean Theater offers a slight production of a thinly scripted play

Alice in Bed is the second production from Wingspan Theatre, and a greatly expanded endeavor from the company's critically acclaimed first show, William Luce's The Last Flapper. That one-woman show, performed at the Bath House Cultural Center, featured Sergeant and also explored the life of a famous woman who buzzed around the periphery of American letters, Zelda Fitzgerald. ("One of the advantages of forming your own theater company," Sergeant says with a laugh, "is picking the best roles for yourself.") Sergeant had actually intended to do Alice in Bed before The Last Flapper.

"I've been wanting to do Alice in Bed since 1993, but I just got the rights a year ago," she says. "My husband was in a horrible motorcycle accident, but he got a lovely settlement. That's how I was able to get the rights from Sontag and produce this script with more actors, designers, and costumes. Before that, I just didn't have the resources to stage this show, so my husband suggested The Last Flapper for the first time around."

Directed by Pam Myers-Morgan, Alice in Bed co-stars Rene Moreno as Henry James and takes full advantage of Susan Sontag's imaginative, free-form script, which draws explicit parallels between the unsung James sibling and another Alice who lived in her imagination, Lewis Carroll's habitue of Wonderland and The Looking Glass. Sontag is able to push Alice James through various hallucinatory Carollian moments, including a tea party with real-life female literary pioneers Margaret Fuller and Emily Dickinson, because the real-life James became a frequent user of laudanum, pure opium, and morphine during the last few years of her pain-wracked life when she began to waste away from a very real illness--breast cancer.

Sontag's script--her first play--was first staged eight years ago, and as a German translation. Her legendary essays have made her a pop critic/philosopher to rival the likes of no-longer-living opinionmakers like Ayn Rand and Bertrand Russell, but does Sontag have the basic narrative skills to forge a successful drama?

"Sontag comes from the literary world, not the theatrical world," Sergeant admits. "You could get lost in the play's language, because it's so beautiful. But the wrong director could really mess it up. I think Pam [Myers-Morgan] has been careful to make a few changes so it's accessible theatrically."

Susan Sergeant admits she has mixed feelings about the fact that Sontag, who was originally scheduled to come to Dallas as part of a "five-page, Broadway-style contract," won't be able to attend the Texas debut because she's working on her second play in Italy this summer.

"On the one hand, I'm disappointed," she says. "On the other, I'm relieved. This is very impressionistic material, and we'll feel freer to shape it according to our own vision."

On comparing herself to the woman she has become for a month: "If Alice James and I were to take an I.Q. test at the same time, she'd smoke me," Sergeant says. "But I'm more worldly in an emotional sense because I have husband and family, a domestic as well as a professional life. In some ways, her life was so small. The greatest challenge of this role is to leave that emotional knowledge behind, to forget it, yet try to find parallels between my own experience and Alice's."

Alice in Bed runs through June 20. Call (972) 504-6218.

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