Meet the Star of The Killing of Sister George

Vital Voice – July 07, 2015

“It’s a psychological beast,” said Lavonne Byers, the St. Louis actress who will play the title role in Max & Louie’s production of The Killing of Sister George. “There are so many layers, and we keep peeling away and peeling away.”

We were high-carb brunching in the Loop, not far from the Regional Arts Council where the cast of Sister George was slated to rehearse in an hour. Byers was in New York-black and savoring a mug of hot, foreign coffee.

Compact, energetic and insanely talented, Lavonne Byers is one of the most sought-after actresses in St. Louis. Recently, Lavonne played the Emcee in Cabaret, and was a stunning critical success. StageDoor St. Louis said that she gave “an amazing performance.” The RiverFront Times called her “quite a force,” and “a menacing enigma that hovers everywhere.” KDHX Radio said that she was “both sexually voracious and ambiguous… simply splendid.”

Byers also earned a St. Louis Theatre Circle Award for that role, as Outstanding Actress in a Musical. She adds this accolade to two Kevin Kline wins, and a Chicago-based Joseph Jefferson nomination.

Back at brunch, Lavonne gestured to a well-annotated copy of The Killing of Sister George on the table next to her.

“I am loving this play,” she said. “The words are fun to say; the dialects and the syntax of the words make it fun. I’ve been working on the accents, because Sister George and June­­–the actress who plays her–are really two different people. They speak differently.”

While Byers’ performances are seamless and resonate with emotional honesty, they also bear the hallmark of training and technique. She has a strong educational background, and I wondered how she came to choose theatre as her major.

“When it came time for college, my first impulse was to major in music, specifically voice,” she said. “I didn’t have the confidence to go forward with that, though. A classmate of mine, Pam Moore, was also interested in theatre. I asked what she was doing for college, and Pam said that she was going to study at the Webster Conservatory. That sounded good, so I decided that I’d go there, too.”

Lavonne left Webster University after her sophomore year and graduated with a BA in acting from St. Louis University. After a few years away from the academia, she attended Purdue University in Indiana, adding a master’s degree, also in in acting, to her resumé.

“I worked in New York for a while, and in Chicago. But I have to admit that living the actor’s life made me a little bit nervous,” Lavonne said. “I like to know where my next paycheck is coming from, so now I’m a full-time legal assistant.”

Our waitress tops off Lavonne’s coffee and she chuckles, “I still have to do my theatre, though. Sometimes I do shows for my own therapy.”

She takes a sip, shakes her head and repeats: “Sister George is a psychological beast. Layers. The story is there, and it’s solid, but it’s really a character study. The show is all about character, about behavior.”

It might be argued that the show is about persons of dubious character, demonstrating less-than admirable behavior.

The Killing of Sister George is a seldom-produced dark comedy, and has been called “bitchy fun, dynamic and timeless.” It follows the fortunes of Sister George, a beloved character, a nurse, on a BBC radio serial, fated to be “killed off” due to low ratings. June is the actress who plays her–an abusive, cigar-smoking, gin-swilling, lesbian. When the queen of radio is dethroned, undercurrents pull George, her sweetly dim-witted lover, and a lady executive from the BBC into dangerous territory.

“This show is all about the women,” Byers said.

True. The four-person cast is all-female: Shannon Nara will play June’s flat mate, Childie; St. Louis favorite Erin Kelly is Mercy, the merciless executive from the BBC and Cooper Shaw will portray Madam Xenia, the friendly neighborhood psychic.

“It’s really great to work with a bunch of women,” Byers said, running her hands through her trendy, choppy haircut. “As a team, we are creating a female-driven piece.”

That team is very high in estrogen, both on the stage and behind the scenes. Sister George boasts producers Stellie Siteman and De Kaplan at the helm of Max & Louis Productions, and Brooke Edwards will direct.

“This isn’t a show about lesbianism, nor the lesbian experience,” Byers said. “At least three out of the four characters are lesbians, but the characters could be played by anyone…male, female, any combination.”

It occurs to me that her highly-touted role as the Emcee in Cabaret, typically played by a man, might be related to her portrayal of the butch and aggressive June Buckridge.

Byers shakes her head. “Cabaret was actually pretty easy, because I was playing a man. Not a woman playing a man—a man. Granted, a very fey man, but there was nothing ‘gender bending’ about it. In that show I could rely on the audience’s perception of ambiguity. I didn’t have to do much.”

Then what about Sister George/June Buckridge?

“Sister George is going to be a challenge physically. I’m going to have to ‘butch her up.’ June is, after all, a male-dominant role, the head of the house. The way she walks…holds her body…to a large degree I’m going to have to approach this role very physically.”

Glancing at the time, Lavonne signals to the waitress for the check. “But of course, that physicality is just one layer. It’s like Jon Hamm [of TV’s Mad Men]. He played an iconic role for a long time, and now it’s gone. What do you do?”

Byers gathers her purse, her change, her script.

“It’s about celebrity, and the lengths to which we’ll go in order to hold on to what’s comfortable.” Lavonne heads up the street and toward the rehearsal space. “It’s about survival.”

Survival. One has the feeling that no matter who’s behind the killing of Sister George, Lavonne Byers is not going to let her go quietly.

Max & Louie Production’s The Killing of Sister George will run July 10 through 26 at The Wool Studio Theatre, in The JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex, #2 Millstone Campus Drive, St. Louis, MO, 63146. Tickets are available, at 1-(800) 838-3006, or at