Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Duet For One
Also see Richard's review of Steel Magnolias
That's what happened to Jacqueline Du Pre, a British cellist whose career was cut short by multiple sclerosis at age 28. It's also the story of Duet for One by Tom Kempinski which is loosely based on Du Pre's career. Duet for One was a smash hit in London in 1980 and proved equally popular in a 2009 revival. Thanks to Soundstage Productions, St. Louisans had a chance to check it out for themselves this past weekend.
Duet for One is a two-hander about a psychiatrist (or maybe he's a psychoanalystit's not crucial to the plot) and a patient. Stephanie (Christina Rios) is a professional violinist recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis who has begun seeing Dr. Feldmann (Ken Haller) to help her deal with the disease and the many changes it is bringing to her life. Over the six therapy sessions which comprise the play, they delve into the expected material: Stephanie's childhood, her relationship with her husband, why she doesn't have children, what the disease is doing to her life.
As a stage character, the therapist is second only to the police detective as a device for communicating scarcely disguised back-story and exposition to the audience. It's certainly an easy way to get the information out there and saves the expense of having to hire more than two actors. But it can be done more or less skillfully, and Kempinski comes down on the latter side of the balance: his poor Dr. Feldmann seems not even to have a secretary to do his record-keeping so he opens the first therapy session by asking Stephanie her age, residence and marital status.
Stephanie is not a particularly cooperative patient and the play quickly establishes itself as a battle of wills over whose version of reality will prevail. Kempinski has stacked the deck in the manner suggested by the title: one role (Stephanie) is far more developed while the other (Dr. Feldmann) functions mainly as a plot device, although he does get a big dramatic speech near the end.
Roles involving disease and disability make great award bait because they let the audience experience suffering vicariously and leave the theatre feeling uplifted. They're also the playwright's best friend: if you want to raise the emotional stakes or end a scene on a cliffhanger, just have the afflicted character cry, collapse or announce that the test results have come back and they're not good. "Jane Martin" parodied this tendency in Anton in Show Business and I'm sure others have done so as well.
Kempinski doesn't avoid these temptations, but Christina Rios overcomes them with a commanding performance which showcases her emotional range and close attention to subtext. Frances de la Tour originated the role (and was rewarded with an Olivier for it) and it's a great showpiece for the right actress while in the wrong hands it could be excruciating. Fortunately, Rios is more than up to the role and her performance makes enduring the play's excessive length and somewhat creaky structure worthwhile.
The role of Dr. Feldmann is less rewarding for the actor but even taking that into account Ken Haller seems not entirely into his character. It doesn't help that too often he has his nose in the script while Rios is giving more of a staged performance (as much as one can do while confined to a wheelchair, anyway). Soundstage specializes in producing plays in a format somewhere between traditional reader's theatre and full staging, but the effect would be better if the two actors would agree in advance as to where on that continuum they want to be. Overall, Haller does a reasonable job portraying a doctor who is somewhat blinded by his professional background and the point of view which it demands he maintain, but is still trying sincerely to help a patient in obvious distress.
There's a special bonus in this production: live music by violinist Laura Sexauer who was also featured in the recent Mustard Seed Production of Fiddler on the Roof. Her beautiful playing (in part of her own original compositions) helps the audience understand what is at stake when a musician is deprived of her ability to perform.
Duet for One is a great choice for Soundstage because the play lives or dies on the actors' abilities to deliver their lines. The script is not particularly originalindeed it seems at times to have been generated by plot-o-maticbut under Randy Stinebaker's direction the cast brings this somewhat on-the-nose drama to life. Jim Meady is the technical director and while no one is credited for costumes, they should be: both characters have multiple costume changes and in Stephanie's case in particular they are well chosen to match her changing mental and emotional states.
Duet for One played at Soundstage Too! at the Marble Stage Theater through February 7. Next up will be Great Falls by Lee Blessing, directed by Randy Stinebaker and featuring Bob Mitchell and Sydney Frasure, which opens March 5. Further information is available from the company website and ticket reservations may be made by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.