Ashley, as Zerline (the servant), takes charge of the stage for just over an hour in Jeremy Sams' adaptation of Hermann Broch's story. Audacious and oblivious, Zerline recounts many an episode as The Man hardly has an opening for reply. She gains his attention quickly when speaking of the "bastard daughter" of the widowed baroness.
That is only the beginning, as Zerline, recalling her own alluring, voracious, enticing younger presence, regales all with times of lust, sex and desire. She had a mind to marry the baroness's lover. Zerline recounts the instance when the baroness's husband grabbed her breasts. Ashley demonstrates the maneuver, garnering more than a few laughs with her rendition. As she converses with and pontificates toward the audience, Zerline snatches soiled laundry, cleans up The Man's room, carries about a tray. Every so often she acknowledges him but, for the most part, interrupts his replies.
The material is somewhat engaging but not completely compelling, though Ashley's performance is one to savor. First of all, she is at home with her physicality and she easily spins stories relating to infidelity and, I suppose, sin. Recognizable on both the large and small screen decades earlier, she now works often with Hartford Stage's leader, Michael Wilson, who has directed her several times. She has taken on Big Mama as Wilson presented Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (thirty years earlier Ashley had played sexy Maggie in another Cat on Broadway and was nominated for a Tony Award.) She was splendid as Amanda in Wilson's Hartford Stage production of The Glass Menagerie. Wilson, this past fall, directed her Off-Broadway in Dividing the Estate by Horton Foote.
Zerline's Tale is, technically speaking, a two-person play but it feels closer to a one-woman performance. Ashley successfully finds her own moments, stays with each long enough to entice, and moves on to the next. She and director Wilson are conscious that this piece, just sixty-five minutes, must move forward with vigor since the script has its limits. Broch's original story, through Sams' dialogue, is told through numerous circumstances.
Ashley is able to provide context and tone through her absolutely unique speaking voice. It is a raspy, wheezy, hoarse delivery which benefits her throughout the show. She punctuates her diction by moving, thanks to Wilson, from one spot to another within the restricted confines of the room. This all adds up to immediate, singular theater.
Toward the end of the play, the theme and plot become a bit more intriguing. What stays with the theatergoer, however, is Ashley. She provides a performance which could not possibly be duplicated. Jeanne Moreau took on the role during the 1980s and it's kind of fun to imagine the very different depiction of Zerline the wonderful French actress must have brought to live stage.
Zerline's Tale continues at Hartford Stage through February 10th. For ticket and schedule information, visit www.hartfordstage.org or call (860) 527-5151.
- Fred Sokol