Gertrude Stein and a Companion
A key to the greatness and continued affection for this work is the collaboration of two gifted actors, Claudia Wilkins and Barbara Kingsley, who played Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, respectively, in 1992 and play them still in 2015. Their exquisite performances are reason enough to head to the Jungle.
The play itself, by Win Wells, is a montage of moments that illuminate the passionate bond between these two amazing women. Some of the dialogue is taken directly from Stein's work. It opens with Gertrude, her bulky frame seated in a throne-like chair, and tiny, angular Alice sitting at a simple writing table, whereupon Alice informs us that "Gertrude died today." Gertrude remains a ghostly presence, and the two tell stories back and forth in time, and what a time it was!
They tell of their meeting in Paris and how they quickly knew that their destinies were intertwined. As Alice tells us, "I knew then, that I would be responsible for Gertrude." Gertrude recounts her frustration that her writing was considered difficultshe claimed "all you have to do is read the words," and sold poorly, and how Alice, with absolutely no experience, has created a publishing company out of thin air air and pushed for Gertrude's work to be published, both before and after her death. Gertrude tells us how she came to write The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which became, at last, a best seller and the springboard to a successful American book tour that cemented Gertrude's image as godmother to the avant garde.
Of course, they regale us with stories of the art they ravenously collected, and the lofty company they keptHemingway and Picasso in particularand how the home at 27 Rue de Fleurus where Gertrude lived first with her brother Leo, then shared with Alice, became the center of a swirling world of writers and painters assembled in early 20th century Paris. At times, Alice or Gertrude take on the voice and attitude of Hem or Pablo or Leo, recreating a conversation that captures their essence, and illuminates the relationship between them. We come to understand the enmity between Alice and Hemingway. It was Hemingway who coined the phrase taken as the play's title, as he never spoke of Alice by her name, but would only refer to Gertrude Stein and a companion.
We hear a bit about their volunteerism with The American Fund for the French Wounded during the first World War, and their deprivations and isolation during the second World War as two Jewish lesbians somehow surviving in Vichy Paris, even having German officers billeted in their quarters, and we hear about Gertrude's death one year after the war's end, and how Alice continued devote herself to burnishing Gertrude's legacy for twenty years until she too passed away.
This and much more, packed into 95 minutes, with an intermission. It is all quite engaging. If the play does not provide a narrative in a typical sense, it certainly moves with the same logic Gertrude used in her writing.
Back to those two wonderful actors and the magic they conjure: Claudia Wilkins and Barbara Kingsley. I had the good fortune to see an early mounting in the mid 1990s, and each actress did a terrific job of portraying their respective characters, and creating relationship between them. Twenty years later, they not only create that relationship, but become as one right before our eyes. There is not a moment that Wilkins as Gertrude speaks that Kinsley's Alice is not also speaking to us, through her vehement nods, impish grins, or other non-verbal expressions. There is not a moment that Kingsley as Alice speaks when Gertrude is not also informing us through her posture, and the beaming look of adoration for her improbable life partner. In a sense, each performance attaches itself to the other, an interdependency that completely brings to life the interdependency between Gertrude and Alice.
Bain Boehlke has again directed the play, and his experience bringing out nuance and flushing away any falsehoods serves the production well. He allows the love between these two great woman, that carried them through their remarkable lives, be at all times the central focus.
Physically, Wilkins and Kingsley are each ideally suited for their roles. They are greatly aided in this by the Amelia Cheever's costumesgreat lady brown for Gertrude, a girlish smock for Aliceand Laura Adams' perfectly apt pageboy wig for Alice. Bain Boehlke's set gives us just enough hint of the parlor at Rue de Fleurus to imagine the wall bedecked with great paintings. Bill Healey's lighting design conveys the shifts in the tales from light gossip to heartbreaking loss, and creates a touching final moment when Alice joins Gertrude arm and arm, strolling into the infinite.
Do I recommend Gertrude Stein and a Companion? I do, with no reservations, for the transcendent performances, and as a window into two remarkable lives. The play itself is not here the thing, but the opportunity to keep company with these two wondrous beings makes it well worthwhile.
Gertrude Stein and a Companion continues at the Jungle Theater through March 8, 2015. 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis, MN, 55408. Tickets are $28.00 - $48.00. For tickets call 612- 822-7073 or go to www.jungletheater.com. For group sales call 612-278-0147.
Written by Winn Wells; Director and Set Designer: Bain Boehlke; Costume Designer: Amelia Cheever; Lighting Designer: Bill Healey; Sound Designer: Sean Healey; Wig Designer: Laura Adams; Stage Manager: John Novak.
Cast: Claudia Wilkins (Gertrude Stein), Barbara Kingsley (Alice B. Toklas)
Reviewed by Arthur Dorman