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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Word for Word presentation of Epiphanies Brings Literature to Life

Also see Richard's review of Shakespeare in Hollywood and Mambo Italiano

Epiphanies
Stephanie Hunt and Patricia Silver
Once again the Word for Word Company brings great literature to life through two powerful short stories about women caught in the web of society's expectations (Guy de Maupassant'sThe Necklace and Susan Glaspell's A Jury of Her Peers) in Epiphanies, currently at the Magic Theatre. This company's mission is to tell good stories with simple and elegant theatricality. Their aim is to startle and amaze the audience with language, pulling the best from a rich literary heritage and bringing it to life on the stage. They perform short works of fiction in their entirety, preserving the author's voice and honoring her or his intent with exciting visuals and inventive staging.

James Joyce described "epiphanies" as being a sense of sudden "revelation of the whatness of a thing." David Dower, the artistic director of Z Space Studio and director of these two stories says "each of these stories turns on this phrase, those climatic moments in each when the characters fully understand the 'whatness' of the objects at the center of the tales. The epiphanies occur simultaneously for the character and the reader, in this case the audience."

The company's actors give polished performances, with no scripts in hand, and in the period costumes of the day. The Necklace opens the production with a lovely performance by Delia MacDougall as the beautiful and na´ve Mathilde Loisel who desires a better position in Parisian society. The greatest French short story writer says in the opening, with the cast repeating, "She was one of those pretty and charming girls born, as though fate had blundered over her, into a family of artisans." Poor Mathilde has no expectations of getting known, understood or loved, so she marries a little clerk in the Ministry of Education.

Mathilde suffers endlessly thinking she was born "for every delicacy and luxury" and, even when her husband comes home from the office, she visualizes living in luxury with a footman at her beck and call. She has no clothes, no jewels, nothing. Her husband is just a plain individual who thinks their daily dinner of "Scotch broth" is the spice of life.

The couple have been invited to an elegant reception given by the Minister of Education and Madame Ramponneau, so Mathilde spends her husband's savings and borrows a diamond necklace from a wealthy friend. Unfortunately, she loses the necklace and is afraid to face the friend to confess. The pair borrow 40,000FF (worth about $7,600 at the time) to replace the piece without the rich friend's knowledge. The wife's dreams go up in smoke as they struggle for the next ten years to pay off their many creditors. Their life disintegrates into dingy rooms as the husband takes on additional jobs to pay the debt. Only the great French writer could come up with the twisted O. Henry ending.

The 30-minute piece characterizes the compact and dramatic narrative lines, eliminating moral judgments and long digressions used by many earlier writers. After hearing and seeing the taut production, one can see that de Maupassant was responsible for technical advances that move the short story toward an austerity that has marked it ever since.

Following an intermission, the company presents Susan Glaspell's A Jury of Her Peers, a 1917 short story based on a murder case that Glaspell covered while working as a reporter for the Des Monies Daily News. The short story caused a great sensation when it was published due to the frank treatment of the murder and a disturbing, controversial ending. At the time, women could not serve on juries or vote, and the author confronts those who thought that the United States offered freedom and equality by demonstrating that women were not treated equally since they could not participate in the justice system. The play shows how everyday morality sparks a heated debate on how men and women differ in their sense of justice.

A Jury of Her Peers is about the murder of Iowa farmer Mr. Wright, who lived in a lonely farmhouse with his wife Minnie (Delia MacDougall). The husband is murdered one night and the wife claims not to know who killed him. Since was the only one in the house at the time of the killing, she is arrested and jailed. The sheriff (Brian Keith Russell) and city district attorney (Andrew Hurteau) need a motive for the murder so they can successfully prosecute the wife. She appeared to have been a dutiful wife in the strictest sense of 1900s Iowa. Martha Hale (Patricia Silver) and her husband (Howard Swain), the Wrights' nearest neighbors, are taken by the sheriff, his wife (Stephanie Hunt) and the attorney to the isolated home to find evidence on why Minnie did away with her mate.

The men believe they will find something to convict Minnie while the women are there just to collect clothing and see to Minnie's preserves. However, Martha finds many clues to why Minnie murdered her husband. These clues show the difficult life of abuse and violence that she sustained at the hands of the husband. The women decide not to tell the men of the vital clues since they believe the husband was a monster. This was before the days of psychiatric diagnoses, especially on insanity in crime. The story was selected as a Best American Short Story of the Century in 1999.

Patricia Silver is very convincing as "female detective" Mrs. Hall with her strong down-home, no-nonsense acting. Stephanie Hunt is first-rate as the weak-will sheriff's wife who slowly comes around to Mrs. Hall's way of thinking. Howard Swain, as a comic and somewhat dense typical Iowa farmer husband, gives an effective performance with his down-home accent. Andrew Hurteau and Brian Keith Russell, as the city attorney and the sheriff, look and act like typical small town characters. Delia MacDougall as Minnie (actually a "spirit," since she is in jail) is fine in the small role.

Director David Dower has done a very nice job, and Laura Hazlett has designed some authentic costumes reflecting the French society of the 19th century and the farm costumes of 1917 Iowa. Set designer Mikko Uesug has fashioned a kitchen set that is very genuine to a farmhouse of the early 20th century.

Epiphanies runs through February 13 at the Magic Theatre, Southside, Building D, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco. For information and reservations call 415-437-6775 or visit as www.zspace.org


Photo: Mark Leialoha


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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