Not that every molecule may be attributed solely to Kushner. He “freely adapted” his work from Pierre Corneille’s 1636 comedy L’Illusion Comique, following the original’s essential structure, character layout, and even its trick ending with reasonable fidelity. With a firm reliance on stock personas and poetry, it is undoubtedly linked to the culture in which Corneille lived and wrote. Yet it’s also unquestionably a modern piece, examining the details and boundaries of our own perceptions (those both inborn and gifted to us by others) in ways that brand it a part of Kushner’s — and 20th-century America’s — peculiar dramatic tradition.
Chief among these is its focus on families: those we need (and don’t), those we want (and don’t), and those that are thrust at us. Pridamant of Avignon (David Margulies) has journeyed to a shadowy cave to seek out the sorcerer Alcandre (Lois Smith). Pridamant wants to learn the fate of his son, whom he callously chased away years ago and whose absence now wracks him with regret. Alcandre is happy to oblige him (for the right payment, that is), but proves during the course of the visions she conjures that fantasy may not be entirely trustworthy — even if it is in many cases truer than the reality that surrounds it.
That question is answered for him (and for us) in time, but not until an impressive tangle of personalities and plot have been unraveled, and the relationships of everyone — including Alcandre’s deaf-mute servant, Amanuensis (Henry Stram), in the “outside” world, and the cobweb-headed Matamore (Peter Bartlett) within the fantasy — have been thoroughly explored. Kushner does it all with a light touch that stands in stunning contrast to the conflagrative speechifying deployed so freely in the previous Signature outings, Angels in America and The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. But his approach yields no less fiery results and, in fact, the contemplative understatement often comes across as even more compelling than some of his other plays’ more open provocations.
Mayer has broken no new ground in attempting to communicate all this, but has effectively marshaled the full forces of a semi-deconstructive take on French drama to his aid. With the help of set designer Christine Jones, costume designer Susan Hilferty, and lighting designer Kevin Adams, he’s created a world that is at once colorful dream and discordant nightmare, keeping you as off your guard as Pridamant is forever off his. You really do feel as though you’re traveling into the cosmic crossroads of the intellectual and emotional, where anything can (and probably will) happen.
Wittrock, Wever, Quaid, and Dugan are roundly excellent in populating the more astral part of that universe, and approach their portrayals with a buoyant seriousness that lets them maintain consistency even when all the trappings around them change. (Kushner has fashioned three illusions for them to romp through, one more than Corneille did.) Stram is similarly outstanding, with deep undertones at once playful and tragic, as both the put-upon Amenuensis and the rich girl’s stolid father. But Bartlett, Margulies, and Smith don’t round out the periphery particularly well — they’re all giving performances they’ve given before in other shows, set in other time periods, and that disrupts, well, the illusion of a unique, wonderful, and unpredictable existence on which the action so strongly trades.
Smith, however, redeems herself during a climactic monologue in which Alcandre explains that love, despite its incorporeality, is far more tangible than anything you can hold in your hand. “The art of illusion is the art of love, and the art of love is the blood-red heart of the world,” Alcandre instructs, the shrugging yet authoritative tones of an all-seeing grandmother flooding her voice. “At times I think there’s nothing else.” By the end of The Illusion, Kushner will have you thinking exactly the same thing.