Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 27, 2008
The Country Girl By Clifford Odets. Directed by Mike Nichols. Scenic design by Tim Hatley. Costume design by Albert Wolsky. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Acme Sound Partners. Hair design by David Brian Brown. Material revisions by Jon Robin Baitz. Cast: Morgan Freeman, Frances McDormand, Peter Gallagher, also starring Remy Auberjonois, Anna Camp, Joe Roland Lucas, Caleb Rooney, and Chip Zien.
Is this the story of Clifford Odets’s 1950 play The Country Girl, or of the new revival of it that just opened at the Jacobs? No matter. If it takes longer than it should for the two to fuse into one, the fireworks that arrive when director Mike Nichols and stars Morgan Freeman and Frances McDormand finally start reading from the same script are almost worth the wait. They’re also almost exciting enough to quell your curiosity about why you have to wait until 10 minutes into the second act for them to first appear.
At that point, Frank Elgin (Freeman) has all but bottomed out. Director Bernie Dodd (Peter Gallagher) has convinced him to abandon his semi-retirement, and cast him as the headliner of a meaty, Broadway-bound play following a stunning improvisational audition. But since hitting the Boston tryout, the magic has evaporated. Frank’s performance is coming only in bits and pieces. He can’t remember his lines. And he might have fallen off the wagon scheduled to drive him to new glory.
But the spark of hope in him has been ignited, which has in turn set off a long-dormant blaze inside his wife Georgie (McDormand). Frank describes her as a former Miss America runner-up who failed to match her earlier accomplishments, and as a woman at one time as sick in the head with love for him as she was with grief for the daughter they lost. Yet Georgie is willing to bear the brunt of her husband’s alcohol habit, defend him to all detractors (particularly Bernie and the show’s tight-walleted producer, played by Chip Zien), or even stand up to him - or walk out - when they’re alone. How can a weak woman possess such Herculean strength of will?
This issue energizes the play’s second half, forcing McDormand and her costars to drill deep to justify this apparent contradiction. She stands taller and closer to everyone she speaks to, as if afraid any extra air will dilute her purpose; her voice, formerly a wispy clarinet solo morphs into an angry bassoon section. Freeman, challenged by her spirit, leaps into Frank’s emotional bingeing and purging with the gusto of a category-five tornado. Gallagher’s greasily manipulative Bernie must develop new tactics to defeat Frank and Georgie’s united front - and the actor guides the director he’s playing there with a stirringly self-loathing honesty.
Once they develop this stride, they don’t drop below a full gallop, convincing completely through the end of the play. This is no small achievement, as they’re all too old for their roles - you never believe, as you technically should, that Frank can still turn things around, that Bernie is a wunderkind on the brink, and that Georgie links them across two rocky decades. Yet as they rip through Odets’s temperamental situations and florid dialogue with ease, such concerns (and the years) melt away as Frank, Bernie, and Georgie nonetheless become the vibrant, hopeful fonts of possibility they need to be.
Any hint of these qualities, however, is missing in the first act, which is awash more with a disorientation akin to having just woken from a coma than weathering career instability. Without such underpinnings, Odets’s play feels more like a cobweb-coated backstager than a study in how redemption may be found in the most unlikely of places. Portraits of necessary theatrical denizens, such as the pseudo-philosophical playwright (Remy Auberjonois), the dewy ingénue (Anna Camp), and the business-minded stage manager (Lucas Caleb Rooney) contribute more flavor than substance, and threaten to blur rather than focus the pungent human drama at the play’s core.
Under Nichols’s watch, there are few hints of the disintegration or reconstruction in the cards, the barriers of expectation and pain between the members of the central trio that must be reconfigured if any of their lives is to resume. Freeman evinces none of the promise of a faded star desperate to shine again, Gallagher plays a garden-variety enabler, and McDormand makes Georgie a stony cipher too unyielding to bother unlocking. Compared to the tightly woven character study of Odets’s Awake and Sing!, of which Lincoln Center mounted a thrilling revival two years ago, The Country Girl creaks noticeably when anyone treads too heavily.
Nichols doesn’t employ the early lightness that could relieve this, ostensibly on the theory that one can’t appreciate the glow at the end of the tunnel without stumbling around blindly for an hour. The intensity of the sparks that accompany the second act might be due to pushing this idea, but the first act’s pervasive hopelessness doesn’t make getting there a pleasurable experience. Even Tim Hatley’s sets, Albert Wolsky’s costumes, and Natasha Katz’s lights are seedy enough to make you wonder why you should bother. Is the two-dimensionality of backstage really all there is?
Odets disagrees, and much of his play is dedicated to proving that broken hearts and souls are not among the myriad maladies the theatre can cure. Bandages and salves for those ailments may only be found within, and their restorative powers can be extraordinary. When Nichols and his company underestimate them, as they too often do, the effect is deadening. But the instant they trust in themselves and grant the characters the freedom to do the same, they and The Country Girl come well and truly to life.