The Breath of Life
Also see Matthew's review of Aurélia's Oratorio
Frances Beale (the wife) calls on Madeleine Palmer (the lover) at her Isle of Wight cottage and they spend a long evening together dissecting their separate but parallel lives with the same man, Frances' husband Martin. As Hare puts forward in a dialogue about films early in the first act, the story is not the point, "the real point is who you are ... who you are underneath." He then requires the actresses to spend the balance of the play showing us who these women are and why they behave as they do.
The first act sets up the situation and provides some of the backstory. Martin has betrayed both women and gone off to live in Seattle with a younger spirit. Hare takes the opportunity to share some of his views on turn-of-the-Millennium American culture, one of the funniest being a diatribe spoken by Madeleine about chicken skin. She also rails against fiction because "it isn't true." As it happens, Frances is a popular novelist, but part of the reason for her visit is to propose the idea of writing a memoir about their lives, in addition to seeking closure. Madeleine accuses Frances of living in the past and giving meaning to her mundane life by writing about it, while describing her own life as experiential and her work as a curator, seeking the origin of things, more significant. She claims to have moved on three years after the end of the 25-year relationship.
As often happens in real life, the intimacies are exchanged in the middle of the night during a decidedly grown-up pajama party. We learn more about Martin, a nominee for infidelity poster boy, but the playwright does not so much judge him as describe him. Frances and Madeleine are the collateral damage of the way he conducts his life, but they also made choices along the way. As they trade stories in the pre-dawn hours, their similarities begin to come into focus. Just prior to Frances leaving for the ferry the next morning, Madeleine finally recounts the way her affair began with Martin and how she was able to compartmentalize it within her emotional filing system. Catalog, yes; closure, not so much.
Carroll and Plum put on an acting master class. They each breathe life into their respective characters and peel back layer after layer of their personalities. Individually, their interpretations provide a detailed and nuanced depiction of an independent, self-sufficient difficult person on the one hand, and an awkward, desperate nice person on the other. Collectively, their work has amazing synergy, the result of impeccable timing, breadth of talent, and a cohesiveness born of prior experience sharing the same stage. For two hours, all they appear to do on the surface is talk in spot-on British accents and traverse the unit set, but they truly do so much more, plumbing the depths of these women. What happens to Frances and Madeleine may be all too common, but their portrayal by this duo is absolutely not. They command our rapt attention because we don't want to miss a word or even a raised eyebrow. Except for when the appropriate response was laughter or a gasp, I was struck by the quiet concentration of the audience on opening night. There was no rustling, no coughing, and you could have heard a pin drop during any of the long speeches. Engel's direction allows the veteran actresses to make many of their own choices, but we ride the wave of his artfully drawn blueprint for pace, pause and dramatic build-up to Hare's climactic, albeit quiet, conclusion.
Jenna McFarland Lord's expertly detailed set includes an office area with floor-to-ceiling shelves laden with Madeleine's archives; a galley kitchen; a living room with sofa, throws and several large decorative pillows; and a long continuous window seat with sand, shells and sea grass beneath its exterior rough-hewn wall. The atmosphere of the production is enhanced by Russ Swift's lighting design to indicate the mood, vis-à-vis the hour, and Dewey Dellay's evocative sounds of surf and seagulls. Molly Trainer's costume designs differentiate between the conservative, buttoned up Frances and the aging radical Madeleine.
The Breath of Life is an intelligent contemporary drama and an incisive character study. Despite the inherent restrictions of everything taking place in one room, there is more than meets the eye happening in the hearts and minds of this cast, and that is more than enough to sustain the energy necessary to keep it crackling. Don't let this Life pass you by.
The Breath of Life at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA; Performances through August 2 Box Office 978-281-4433 or www.gloucesterstage.org. Playwright David Hare, Directed by Eric C. Engel; Set Design, Jenna McFarland Lord; Costume Design, Molly Trainer; Lighting Design, Russ Swift; Sound Design and Original Music, Dewey Dellay; Production Stage Manager, Kayla G. Sullivan
Cast: Nancy E. Carroll (Madeleine Palmer) and Paula Plum (Frances Beale)