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Chicago by John Olson

M. Proust
World Premiere
About Face Theatre

M. Proust
Mary Beth Peil
At the recent Talkin' Broadway party in New York over Tony Awards weekend, I was frequently asked by the New Yorkers in attendance, nicely I should add, to explain the Chicago theater scene and suggest what might be there to attract a New Yorker to the Windy City for a theater trip. Right now, the best reason for such a trip might be to see an actress of their they may have overlooked. In About Face's World Premiere of M. Proust, written by Mary Zimmerman, New York based Mary Beth Peil easily commands the stage for this 75-minute one-woman play. In fact, Mary Beth Peil may just be one of the great underrated actresses of our time. In M. Proust, she gives a performance as CÚleste Albaret, the French novelist's longtime housekeeper and confidant, that would have been worthy of a Tony nomination, had it been eligible. She's equally at ease playing the dignified housekeeper as she is playing Proust and many of his characters. Amazingly, while Ms. Peil's Albaret is ever a dignified woman respectful of social conventions, she's also a keen and tolerant observer of an assortment of human behaviors.

The premise is that Madame Albaret, near the end of her life and some 50 years after the death of Marcel Proust, is writing a memoir about the novelist in order to rebut allegations about his life, in particular the insinuation that he was gay. Ms. Peil and Ms. Zimmerman cleverly show CÚleste's denial of that rumor while making the truth of it obvious to the audience. CÚleste is no homophobe, though, and at one point she expresses sympathy for those men she observes who have great affection for each other, but must publicly obscure it.

Mme. Albaret reveals how she gradually became Proust's confidante: when Proust would return home from the many salons and parties he attended, he would tell her about the goings-on of the evening, perhaps as practice for his reworkings of the real-life turn of the century Parisians in his epic novel Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time. Through her unique opportunity to see the public Proust through his eyes and the private one first-hand, we see a picture of a man accepted at the highest levels of society, joyous in his fascination and appreciation of human beings, yet perhaps deeply alone much of his life. Through her memories, she recreates the life of the novelist who lived so completely in his own.

As the action begins Mme. Albaret is sitting quietly in what appears to be a paneled hallway in her home, speaking her memoirs into a tape recorder. In the clever set designed by Daniel Ostling, panels of the wall are occasionally backlit to reveal settings like Proust's bedroom, or the door opens to show a chandelier suggesting a ballroom, as her memories turn to significant events of the Proust household.

Though little of the memoir describes direct interaction between M. Proust and Mme. Albaret, Ms. Peil, under the direction of About Face Artistic Director Eric Rosen, suggests that she must have been Proust's soul mate in her affection for him and his characters, and respect for the importance and power of memory in making sense of our existence.

Though I'd love to see my New York friends make it out here to see this, I hope this production will travel to New York so that they don't have to. I just hope they remember it started here first.

M. Proust will be performed Wednesday through Sunday nights at 7:30 p.m., and at matinees Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m., through July 9 at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theater, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago,. Tickets range from $25 to $40, and are available at the Steppenwolf Box Office at 312-355-1650, or online at www.aboutfacetheatre.com.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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