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.