Leading lady Lavonne Byers takes on another challenge

Judith Newmark – St. Louis Post Dispatch, July 10, 2015

In St. Louis, only a handful of actors can draw theatergoers on the strength of their names — and nearly all of them are men. And then there’s Lavonne Byers.

From the rapacious Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (Vanity Theatre, 2003) to a New York invalid whose physical collapse mirrors news of the Holocaust in Arthur Miller’s “Broken Glass” (New Jewish Theatre, 2006) to the gender-bent Emcee in Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret” (Stray Dog Theatre, 2014), Byers has drawn audiences and defied categories.

A graduate of St. Louis University with a master’s in acting from Purdue, Byers is part of the SLU group that’s a force in theater here, a loose cadre that includes director Wayne Loui (who was her professor), actor and director Alan Knoll, actor and producer Em Piro, director and producer Tom Martin, actor and playwright Nancy Bell and St. Louis Shakespeare founder Donna Northcott.

Northcott cast Byers in the play that put her on the St. Louis theater map: the troupe’s 1997 production of “The Kentucky Cycle” by Robert Schenkken.

A mammoth epic that won the Pulitzer Prize, “The Kentucky Cycle” showed off Byers’ range in a variety of roles, including a quiet Cherokee woman abused by her white husband, the alcoholic wife of a coal executive and a miner’s wife who becomes a labor leader.

Instantly in demand by troupes around town, she went on to appear in classics and new plays, comedies and dramas, musicals and straight plays. She won honors from both the old Kevin Kline Awards organization and, just this spring, from the St. Louis Theater Circle.

Now she takes on another challenging role, the ultra-butch anti-heroine of “The Killing of Sister George.” A scandal when it debuted 50 years ago in London, “Sister George” opens Friday at Max & Louie Productions.

George — as she is known — is a hard-drinking, cigar-smoking actress who lives with a pretty young woman. She’s made a good living with her longtime role on a soap opera, portraying a sweet, gentle nurse. So, when George begins to suspect that her character will be killed off, she does not take it well.

The Frank Marcus play, which traces the unraveling that follows, is considered a dark comedy. That’s fine with Byers.

“I consider myself a character actress,” said the leggy, 55-year-old blonde. Single at present, she lives in University City with three cats. “I love musicals — in high school, I wanted to be a singer — and I think I have an affinity for Albee, for his language.

“But you have to be versatile, above all. Just look at the script! It comes down to the play that you’re in, every time.”