Belle, (Laura Bach), center, listens to advice from Dr. Mueller, (Wil T.K. Kahele), left, about her sick husband, Joe Strong (John R. Watson) in Kumu Kahua Theatre's production of Victoria Kneubuhl's "Fanny and Belle."

Not just
Mrs. Tusitala

Kumu Kahua presents
"Fanny and Belle"

Where: Kumu Kahua Theatre, 46 Merchant St.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays, through April 10
Tickets: $16 general, $13 seniors and $10 students
Call: 536-4441

Playwright Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl admits that there have been times when she's gotten burned out on topics or characters during the writing process, but there's something about the lives of Fanny and Belle Osbourne that continues to fascinate her even years after the final rewrite.

"I'm still reading things about them," she said recently as she talked about the two titular characters in "Fanny and Belle," which opens tomorrow at the Kumu Kahua Theater.

Later known as the wife of Robert Louis Stevenson, "Fanny, especially, is a pretty dynamic woman, and I think that her story is really unusual for a 19th century woman. I've done a lot of plays about the 19th century, and a lot of stuff about women (then), and she really stands out in my mind as someone who was different and daring and adventurous, and kind of a forward-thinker, too."

The woman had an unconventional life, even by contemporary standards. She was still in her teens when she married Sam Osbourne and gave birth to Belle. She wasn't much older than that when she discovered that Sam was chronically unfaithful -- and not even being very discreet about it. For instance, she returned to home unexpectedly from a trip to San Francisco and discovered that he had moved their household goods into another woman's house and was living there with the other woman!

"I think during that period of time, a lot of women would have kept real quiet about things like that and made their own home and ignored what their husband was doing, but Fanny had such a strong personality that she couldn't do that. Her first big break with Sam was when she decided she was going to go to Europe and study art," Kneubuhl said. Fanny took her children, Belle and Lloyd, to Paris. It was there that she met Stevenson. He was 11 years younger than Fanny, and only eight years older than her daughter, but the two became romantically involved, despite the objections of Stevenson's family.

Fanny supposedly broke off the relationship and returned to the United States. But then she reconsidered, got a divorce from Osbourne, returned to Europe, married Stevenson and won over his family. The couple would then resettle in California and eventually travel to Hawaii and then to Samoa, where Stevenson, known as Tusitala (teller of tales), irked some colonists by opposing their plans to divide Samoa between Germany and the United States.

FANNY WOULD later live in San Francisco after Stevenson's death in 1894. She built several homes (at least one of which still exists on the corner of Haight and Lombard) and pursued her interests in art, gardening and world cuisine.

As the play opens, Belle has returned to Samoa to bury her mom's ashes next to Stevenson's grave on Mount Vaea.

"From there, (the play) becomes Belle's memories. It's about a lot of things, but one of the major themes is the mother/daughter relationship between Fanny and Belle, which I think was pretty unique for a 19th century mother/daughter relationship. They had this really intimate bond, but it was pretty explosive, too and, in some ways, it foreshadowed family relationships in the modern age."

Many people seem to discover Fanny Osbourne Stevenson while researching her husband's life, and go from there to learning about her accomplishments. For Kneubuhl, who is one-quarter native Samoan, it was the connection with Samoa that first caught her attention.

"When I was about 12 or 13, I was down there for the summer. ... I hiked up to their graves and it made a big impression on me. When I got older, I found some really interesting biographies about him and discovered that there were some about her, too. I started reading those and got really fascinated with her.

"Fanny had this really wonderful spirit, and not everybody liked her. She made a lot of enemies during her lifetime, too. She was a 19th century woman who ... was determined to live her life according to her sense of herself, rather than that 19th century sensibility of what a woman should be. That was really interesting to me, and her relationship with the Stevenson family was interesting, and her being in Samoa because of my family and because I lived there so long ... interested me, too.

"There's like 20 times more to he story than I could ever fit into a play. I can't believe nobody's made a movie about Fanny and Belle, and the Stevensons in the Pacific. This is the first play I've written where I don't have an agenda. I'm so caught up in their story that I don't feel like I'm saying that much myself."

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