When the lights come up on Helen, Ellen McLaughlin's new play at the Public Theater, there is but one woman onstage. She's lying on a heart-shaped bed, basking in the glow of the early morning light. She starts speaking before we can see her face; her voice is strong, clearly belonging to a woman of great power, but there's loneliness and anguish behind it.
When she slowly sits up, her head of golden curls cascades down around her shoulders, and you realize what a vision this woman is. It's Helen of Troy, and as portrayed by Donna Murphy - giving a performance worthy of the legend herself - you are fully aware how, as Christopher Marlowe described her, her face could have launched a thousand ships.
Murphy commands the stage with grace and power. She stands, walks, and sits on her bed like a woman who is aware of the effect her beauty, breeding, and attitude have on others, within the play and without. Your eyes, like those of the other characters, can hardly bear to drift from her. The combination of her appearance, her silky voice, and the strength of character behind it all is almost overwhelming. Murphy's Helen is a luminous creation.
Positing an alternate explanation for Helen after her kidnapping which ignited the Trojan War, McLaughlin's Helen has been spirited away to a hotel in Egypt while a God-created duplicate of her is fulfilling her destiny as the crux of the devastating conflict. After seventeen years in seclusion, Helen is still waiting to be rescued.
Adapted from Euripides's play of the same title, McLaughlin touches on issues that the great Greek dramatist himself might have, but with her own modern slant. What part does destiny play in Helen's life, and what can she control herself? Where does the line exist between the real and ideal in the minds of those who went to war for her?
Sadly, the character of Helen is McLaughlin's greatest achievement here. Her ideas are captivating, but she seldom significantly explores them. Only through the stories of Helen's faithful attendant (played memorably and with great wit by Marian Seldes) do we get to understand the real Helen, and the pain she must forever endure.
The other characters communicate through brief exchanges and lengthy speeches, but the ideas of Io (Johanna Day), Athena (Phylicia Rashad), and Helen's own husband Meneleus never develop to fruition. None of them make the same impression that Seldes does with her priceless walk, or Murphy does simply by standing. McLaughlin has nodded cleverly to the ancient Greek style of playwriting, but the ideas are eminently cerebral, and in a play already perilously short on action, that threatens to grind the show to an absolute halt.
The only elements that keep that from happening completely are Murphy, Michael Yeargan's beautifully appointed hotel room with the sphinx and the pyramids visible behind, and Gina Leishman's lighting, which leads us through the full range of Helen's emotions, and the natural light an entire Egyptian day provides. Susan Hilferty's designs for Helen's costumes are wonderful, but don't tend to flatter or support the other actors.
Tony Kushner has directed this production with class, but without great passion or distinction. His work here is fine, if not extraordinary. He knows how to get people to look their best, but brings out few subtleties or emotional moments from the script.
That script - and, indeed, the whole production - is probably not for everyone. The more you know about the stories from which the legend is drawn, the more you're likely to enjoy the show. But, Kushner, McLaughlin, and everyone else involved in Helen have obviously realized that it's easiest and most captivating to let Helen tell her own story. With Donna Murphy lusciously at the play's center, there would be few better decisions for them to make.