Beyond Gravity Heartfelt Drama with Real Potential
Also see Bob's review of Sweet Sue
It is important to me that the above observations not be lost because I must deal at some length with a number of problems in the writing which will doom this play to also-run status if Ms. Wolff does not choose to take on the formidable, but oh, so necessary and worthwhile task of dealing with them. The play is overstuffed with twists and overripe lines which ultimately reduce it to risible melodrama. And to top things off, Wolff then tacks on an unearned “happy ending” (optimistic is too nice a word to describe it) from hell.
The middle aged Harry Hawkesworth (Peter Brouwer) is a distinguished professor of history, cold, precise and direct. His wife Jan (Gail Winar) is a less distinguished English professor, flighty, distracted, and the author of a thin volume of light poetry. For the past seven years, since leaving similar teaching positions at an Ivy League university, Harry and Jan have taught at a small undistinguished college..
The setting is the library of the Hawkesworths’ college owned house. On an event filled spring afternoon, a crowd gathers outside to congratulate Jan on her inexplicably having won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. However, the crowd dissipates when it quickly becomes known that actually it was a similarly named poet, Janet Hawkesworth, who is the designee. More ominously, Hawkesworth receives a letter summoning him to the college president’s office the next morning. “Do you think they found out?” “After all this time?”
Early the next morning, Harry and Jan discover a young woman has broken into their house, hiding behind a room divider. The intruder identifies herself as Frederica (Ellen Wolf), a freelance reporter who believes that she can sell an article about the poet who didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize. However, she is soon asking Harry and Jan about the circumstances of their departure from the Ivy League
Shadows of Edward Albee’s Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, light and unthreatening in the first scene, become disturbing and powerful here. Jan is obsessed with the lives of Anne Morrow and Charles Lindbergh. Her mind slips a gear and she believes that she is actually Anne Morrow Lindbergh. By sheer force of will, Jan even succeeds in getting Harry to become her Charles Lindbergh. The sharp dialogue spoken as Jan and Harry slip back and forth between being themselves and being the Lindberghs is a joy. However, neither in Ms. Wolff’s writing nor in Gail Winar’s finely modulated performance does she ever become Mrs. Lindbergh either in manner or attitude. Thus, we always see Jan’s concept of how she would have wanted to behave if she could have known the glory of being the wife of the idolized Lindbergh, who was an aviatrix and famed writer herself. Jan’s simultaneous rise and descent into being Anne Morrow is so richly motivated and so central to exploring the themes of the play that it extends well beyond the shadow of Albee.
Harry and Jan inform Frederica that they have never had children. However, as Harry leaves for his dreaded meeting with the college president, Frederica melodramatically tells them, “I know you have a son, Mrs. Hawkesworth, I’m married to him”. Melodramatic and not particularly original, but chilling and effective, this intriguing line at the conclusion of the second scene of a four-scene, 95-minute play seems clearly written to be followed by an intermission, but, for no reason that I could discern, the play is performed in one act.
Although this is the first time that I can recall encountering the work of Ruth Wolff, it seems that this playwright has been creating plays for the better part of half a century. Yet only three of her plays seem to have been published. The only New York productions of her plays that I could locate were of her Empress of China at the Pan Asian Rep and an adaptation of The Golem somewhere Off-Broadway. Her most widely produced play, The Abdication, about Sweden’s Queen Christina, failed to travel from Bath to London as intended when originally produced in 1971. The option for a Broadway production of her Eleanore of Aquitaine was dropped when James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter on the same subject went into production. Her other plays about historical figures are numerous. In the mid-1970s she provided the scripts for film adaptations of two of her plays, but neither film (The Abdication with Liv Ullman and The Incredible Sarah with Glenda Jackson) was well received nor popular. Many of her plays have been based on the lives of historic figures. It seems safe to conclude that Ms. Wolff is a determined and dedicated playwright who has managed to create a most large body of work while falling well short of breaking into the front ranks of American playwrights.
Knowing of Ms. Wolff’s oeuvre, it seems beyond dispute that Beyond Gravity is, at its core, an extremely heartfelt and personal play. It reflects Ms. Wolff’s deep interest and, possibly fanatical, absorption with major historic figures, the disappointments which she has had to endure, her feelings about being overshadowed by more successful writers, and her perseverance in making the most of her situation. I cannot know this, but I would hazard a guess that this is the most creative and imaginative play that Ms. Wolff has ever written.
Therefore, it is especially vexing to see Ms. Wolff strive for soap opera dramatics when it is clear that she has the chops to create dramatic truth. Why start with the cutesy unconvincing opening gambit involving Jan’s not winning the Pulitzer? Why be mysterious and portentous about the secret of the Hawkesworths’ past? Their college president would surely know of it. Why not allow that he knows of and accepts the stain that brought them to his school? There are enough further revelations to account for his meeting with Harry, and the reduction of unnecessary melodrama will make the rest seem less creaky.
The last two scenes of Beyond Gravity end in melodramatic lines so over the top that they wind up being groaners. The third scene ends with what should have been mentioned casually much earlier in the scene as motivation for Frederica’s presence. Poor Frederica also gets the evening’s final revelation which provides an out-of-the-blue, tacked-on ending which Ms. Wolff provides for anticipated audience taste for happy endings.
Beyond Gravity is also a contemplation on the fall and dehumanization of a man of exceptional promise. Jealousy and total self centeredness are presented convincingly as the seeds for extreme cruelties which destroy the carrier as well as his victims. And, the issue of loyalty, especially of the undeserved variety’ is both implicit and explicit over the course of the play.
As already noted, Gail Winar is outstanding. Without a false note, Winar embodies the flighty, emotional, mentally unstable wife who, at the time of greatest crisis, reveals an inner core of strength and loyalty. Always serving the play, Winar eschews the opportunity for a showy performance to deliver one which is honest and real.
Peter Brouwer conveys the cold, vicious cruelty of Harry without ever being overtly so in his manner. The falsity of Harry’s joviality is made clear by a slight but consistent coldness in his speech, face and mannerisms. When Harry performs his mea culpa, it appropriately plays as a self serving attempt to ensure that he will not lose Jan. Even she would be more than he deserves.
Poor Ellen Wolf does as well as one can in a thankless role. Not only does she have to deliver the evening's lamest lines, but her Frederica is more a deus ex machina than a three-dimensional character. Frederica could be excised completely. Then her revelations could be voiced by Jan from whose mouth they would feel more organic and carry greater impact.
The realistic set by Carrie Mossman nicely complements the play. Director Donald Brenner has elicited excellent performances. His clear, clean direction permits us to see its strengths and considerable potential. The New Jersey Rep has gotten Beyond Gravity off to the strongest possible start. Hopefully, other developmental theatres along with Ms. Wolff will help it to grow.
I never thought of either Howard Hughes or Martin Scorsese when New Jersey Rep announced this play under its original title Aviators. So if Ruth Wolff wants her more appropriate title back, I think that she should just take it.
Beyond Gravity continues performances through May 8, 2005 (Thurs., Fri., Sat.–8 P.M.; Sun.-@P.M. at the New Jersey Repertory Company Lumia Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ 07740.
Beyond Gravity by Ruth Wolff; directed by David Brenner