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Regional Reviews: Chicago

The North China Lover
Lookingglass Theatre Company

Also see John's review of Cyrano de Bergerac

Rae Gray, Deanna Dunagan and Tim Chiou
Marguerite Duras' novel, the autobiographical story of her teenaged affair with a Chinese man at least 10 years her senior in French colonial Vietnam, was produced as a 1992 feature film (The Lover). The movie caused a sensation for its stylish and graphic sexuality, but critics like Roger Ebert panned its substance. While Heidi Stillman's stage adaptation tastefully treats the sexual themes (including, it should be noted, some full-frontal male nudity by leading man actor Tim Chiou and some discreet nudity of leading lady Rae Gray), it deserves the same sort of reaction that befell the film version.

It's staged beautifully—scenes from Duras' memory, narrated by Deanna Dunagan as the author, occur around the proscenium stage, coming and going with the aid of imaginative lighting design and minimal set props both designed by Daniel Ostling. The attractive cast—including the hunky Chiou and the willowy Rae Gray as the girl—look great in Ana Kuzmanic's costumes evoking the French Indochina (today's Vietnam) gorgeously. Musician Betti Xiang adds authentic musical accompaniment to the well acted proceedings. It's all very stylish and classy but Stillman's 95-minute script doesn't get below the surface enough to provide anything to really engage us in these characters.

The teenaged Duras, here called simply "The Child," meets the wealthy Chinese man who will become her lover on her way back to her boarding school in Saigon. They begin an affair, for no apparent reason other than perhaps lust on his part and curiosity on hers. They share clandestine liaisons until the man's father disapproves and insists they break off the affair. This happens shortly before she is to move to France, anyway. We learn a little of her background. Her widowed mother (Amy J. Carle) has been financially ruined and bears a great many debts, but we don't know the precise circumstances that occurred or how she still manages to pay her daughter's school tuition. There's a physically abusive older brother, Pierre. He's played menacingly by Walter Owen Briggs, but to no effect because Stillman doesn't let us in on what's behind his behavior. The child's other brother Paulo (JJ Phillips) is somehow "different" (perhaps developmentally disabled, though he seems quite functional), but it's never explained exactly what his uniqueness may be. Paulo and his sister are shown to have shared physical intimacy that's stopped short of intercourse (the girl is deflowered by the Chinese lover). There's also a schoolgirl friend, Helene, (Allison Torem) who is sexually curious but not so bold as to act upon her desires beyond her touching of The Girl.

As the lover, Chiou is charming, kind and generous. Likeable and sexy, he seems a decent sort if you don't find his attentions toward this young girl predatory. Following up on her co-starring role this summer with William Petersen in Steppenwolf's Slowgirl, Rae Gray is impressive as The Child. She shows the sort of independence that would lead her to embark on such an affair. Could it be curiosity, or rebellion? The Girl has certainly been shown to be sexually curious—with her younger brother as well as Helene. Gary makes The Girl's behavior plausible even in the absence of the script's explaining exactly where she's coming from or what she wants. Gray's interpretation of the character is on the mark, but those who saw her performance in Slowgirl might find the actress is developing vocal mannerisms—certain nasal and throaty inflections that she uses repeatedly for emphasis - that are distracting. It's the sort of thing that gives her acting a distinctive style but risks becoming a target of parody, like Katherine Hepburn's vibrato. The Tony Award winner Dunagan provides elegant narration throughout and, in a coda set in much later years, gives the narrator (here referred to a "M") an emotional breakdown that finally gives the actress a chance to show her stuff.

Audiences familiar with the novel or film, or even Duras' real life events, might be able to develop some feelings for the characters or appreciation for the story as more than the tale of an exceptionally bright teenager's sexual awakening. Lacking that context, I couldn't get much more from The North China Lover beyond an appreciation of the talents of the individual artists.

The North China Lover will play the Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Ave., through November 10, 2013. Ticket information is available at or by phone at 312-337-0665.

Photo: Liz Lauren

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