20 April 2016
Heather Litteer is not a stripper or a prostitute or a junky who will go to any length to score a fix – but, as she explains at the beginning of her new play Lemonade, she plays one on television and in films. Litteer’s autobiographical play explores her disappointing type-casted acting career as a sexualized figurine in generally low budget entertainment and her struggle to connect with her southern mother who sought a very different life for her daughter. Litteer’s tale is a compelling one; however, Lemonade suffers at times from a failure in story-telling and can be difficult to follow. Despite that, there are moments of clarity in the narrative that are both compelling and well-executed.
Litteer’s journey to New York City is a familiar one – a Southern girl moves to the big city in search of acting fame and finds her life falling short of her starry-eyed expectations. Litteer takes a job as a dancer in a gentleman’s club to supplement her income and slowly finds herself landing the occasional bit role in indie films and low budget flicks. The roles often require her to portray a hyper-sexualized or sexually-demeaned woman (a role all too familiar for many women in Hollywood), and she rarely has more than a few fleeting lines in any picture. Moreover, her life is punctuated by calls and brief visits with her ailing mother who undergoes frequent dialysis and wants nothing more than for Litteer to settle down and grace her with grand children. Litteer sometimes neglects her relationship with her mother in favor of building her career and an independent life (a personal choice that many young people who have left home can relate to), but she does so at a heavy emotional cost. Despite her personnel and professional trials, Litteer soldiers on – doing her best to turn the lemons of life into a palatable lemonade.
Heather Litteer bears her soul in this revealing play, but, while her story is a captivating one, the narrative is often confused. It is not until halfway through the first act that the distinction between what is really happening in Ms. Litteer’s life (e.g., dancing at the gentleman’s club; grappling with addiction) and what was being demanded of her as an actress became clear. Much of this stems from the showmanship in director Elena Heyman’s staging, which blurs the line between reality and fiction. Moreover, there are aspects to Litteer’s tale that, forgive me, come across as mildly self-wallowing and suggest an unrealistic expectation of the entertainment industry. For example, Litteer describes one critically-lauded film in which she was given a minor but memorable role (although her character has no name), that she believed would launch her film career because of the treatment she received on the set and the attention showered upon her by the director. However, she laments that the small role has instead haunted her and the well-known director even gave her the cold shoulder after one chance meeting in a NYC restaurant. As unfortunate as these circumstances are, it is difficult to believe that Litteer thought that this role would bring her the opportunities that she sought, especially given the nature of the part.
As an actress, Ms. Litteer is certainly charismatic, and she has an alluring stage presence. Apart from a few flubbed lines and moments when she unnecessarily breaks the fourth wall to engage particular audience members that she recognizes, Litteer does a nice job of carrying the solo endeavor with an enviable amount of energy and skill. Her impression of her mother paints a remarkably vivid picture of the older woman with whom she spars, and she adds welcome touches of comedy to supplement an often-weighty story. In totality, Lemonade strikes a chord because Litteer’s tale is deeply personnel, and her emotional performance reflects the source of her narrative, resulting in a memorable, if somewhat uneven, theatrical experience.