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Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol

The Breath of Life
Westport Country Playhouse

Breath of Life
Stockard Channing and Jane Alexander
David Hare's The Breath of Life is a treat for those seeking intelligent, well-crafted, thoughtful theater. Starring Jane Alexander as Madeleine Palmer and Stockard Channing as Frances Beale, the play explores, through nuanced yet specific conversation, the lives of two women and one man each knew well. Hare's script is rich and the performances by two poised stage actresses are equally impressive. Mark Lamos directs with a sensitivity to the material—and these women. The specific, detailed presentation runs through October 17th at Westport Country Playhouse.

Michael Yeargan, as ever, provides a luminous set. Rear windows look out upon blue sky and, one imagines, the sea surrounding the Isle of Wight in England. The meeting takes place in 2002 and Palmer's living space is gracious, warm and comfortable—filled with appropriate furnishings and books.

Madeleine Palmer, a former museum curator, is, at the outset, difficult. She is feisty, to be euphemistic, or a bit nasty, to be truthful. She is also the mistress of Martin, a man never seen. Frances was married to Martin, with whom she had children. Frances, now a fiction writer, has elected to write a memoir. Thus, the visit to Madeleine.

During the early going, Madeleine and Frances are wary of one another. Martin, however, has evidently taken up with a much younger woman in Seattle. The women left behind find him to be an invisible but common object of scorn.

Frances is kinder and softer, while Madeleine, once pro-active in civil rights causes and a person of conscience, speaks her mind freely and bluntly. It seems that the women, years earlier, might have been introduced. Yet, that moment in time was awkward and strained.

Hare's play, which runs something more than an hour and a half, is cleanly written and stays clear of heavy-handed preaching. Each woman feels that Martin has hurt her, but he appears to be a much dimmer soul than either of them.

The strawberry blonde wig (complete with bangs) Alexander wears gives her a different and distinctive look (Paul Huntley, Inc. provided the wig). Channing, with longer, brown hair, is quite youthful in appearance. During the opening moments, it is somewhat difficult to ascertain just why Frances has arrived on the scene. During the final thirty minutes, one might wish for continuing dialogue as the characters have become allies and, by implication, friends. All the while, Hare writes in some amusing lines, essential complements to affecting, deeper exchanges.

It is reassuring to watch The Breath of Life. Mature and smart, the play addresses past, present and future for each of the women. Lamos directs with care and respect for the material. Alexander and Channing, each with presence, command attention the moment the show begins. The characters, who are initially antagonistic, gradually evolve. Perhaps they might someday meet for dinner?

The Breath of Life continues at Westport Country Playhouse through October 17th. For tickets, call (203) 227-4177 or visit www.westportplayhouse.org.


Photo: T. Charles Erickson


Also see the current theatre schedule for Connecticut & Beyond

- Fred Sokol



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