Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Ambitious, But Unconvincing
The above, a severely truncated and oversimplified account of the lives together of D.H. and Frieda Lawrence, is the fascinating back story for A Moon to Dance By, the ambitious and literary, classically styled American play by veteran author-actor Thom Thomas which is now on stage at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey. Thomas has been writing and refining A Moon to Dance By for the past decade. As far as I have been able to determine, there have been two productions and two major readings of this play since 2005, and Thomas has shifted the primary focus of it from Frieda to the attitude toward her of the son whom she deserted when he was twelve years old. Unfortunately, this subject is small and inconsequential relative to the play's back story.
The play is set at the Kiowa Ranch in early July of 1939. Frieda and Ravagli (here they are lovers, and Ravagli has abandoned his wife and children in Italy) are hosting a brief visit from Frieda's now married, thirty-nine-year-old son, Monty Weekley. Although Monty's visit to the ranch ostensibly actually occurred, there is no known account of that weekend or of the relationship between mother and son. Thus, A Moon to Dance By is a speculative construct unbounded by the actual events of the visit.
Thomas' Weekley, who abhors his mother, is a bigoted, self-righteous prig. His primary interest is to learn the details of Frieda's emotional abuse of his sister Barbara when she had visited Frieda before Lawrence's death (Frieda's explains that she arranged for the gardener's son to seduce the repressed Barbara to free her from the notion placed in her mind by her father that her sexual desires were evil). Frieda is anxious to make her son understand that she had to run away with Lawrence because he needed her in order to create his literary masterpieces. She hopes to rekindle the bond of love which existed between mother and son when Monty was a young boy.
Of course, in keeping with the themes of D.H. Lawrence's most popular novel, Frieda will convince Monty that a person must give full reign to one's passions, more specifically to the desire of one's loins, in order to be free and happy, and that we deny our very nature when we feel shame and/or temper our need to do so. The unseen villain of the play is Ernest Weekley, the deserted professor who turned his children against their admirably free spirited mother and caused Barbara and (it turns out) Monty to deny their true natures.
Although this is hardly an original idea, it is certainly a well established one which has long been trumpeted effectively in literature. However, in the context of A Moon to Dance By, it is wholly unconvincing. As written by Thomas and performed by Jane Alexander, Frieda Lawrence is one very cruel monster. Her descriptions of her treatment of Lawrence convince us that it is not only her need to fulfill herself that drives her wanton cruelty, but that it is also hatred toward and a need to punish and destroy any man who cannot accept and embrace her actions. Might not Frieda have destroyed rather than inspired Lawrence? She certainly does not convince us that she behaved as she did with the purpose of unleashing Lawrence's creativity. Frieda's cruelty remains evident in her amused, mocking abuse of Ravagli. His passion for Frieda has led him to abandon his wife and children and cross the Atlantic, yet Frieda takes pleasure in making him grovel. What we see of her behavior toward Ravagli is not passion from her loins, but pleasure in inflicting pain and establishing dominance. Jane Alexander brings an earthy and strong presence to Frieda Lawrence, but her considerable skill cannot overcome the monstrousness of Thomas' creation. Ms. Alexander's German accent comes and goes throughout the play.
Robert Cuccioli brings a light comic touch and just the proper amount of dignity to the likeable Ravagli. Gareth Saxe performs with an intensity of focus and sense of righteousness as Monty. After a discursive, repetitive, often meandering two hours, we finally arrive at the overdue scene where Frieda confronts, gets through to, and frees Monty from his constrictions. Monty's contrived and arbitrarily scripted turnaround is unconvincing despite Saxe's thoughtful presence in the role.
Just prior to this climactic scene, there is a light, amusing one in which Ravagli shows his good heart as he tries to comfort and enlighten Monty. Although well staged and acted, the scene plays as comic relief which further delays the already overdue climax. Much is made of the fact that, as aliens from Axis countries in America just before the start of World War II, Frieda and Ravagli have to fear the foolish suspicions of American authorities. Furthermore, Monty's uptight Englishman is negatively contrasted with the earthy German and Italian natures of his mother and Ravagli. Monty loves England, Frieda loves Germany and the German language, Monty realizes that he is his mother's son when his speech breaks into German. The result is that at some level A Moon to Dance By seems to be unfavorably comparing England and the United States to Germany and Italy. In 1939, yet.
Edwin Sherin keeps things moving smoothly, and his cast has a buoyancy and presence which maximize the play's best qualities. However, Sherin could make a further contribution by working with the author to tighten and focus his material. The set design for the proscenium stage (built into a theatre that is designed for a thrust stage) is most effective. With this design, additional rows have been added at the front and the stage has been set back and raised several feet from the theatre's floor. The effect provides an improved, more natural viewing angle from the steeply banked seating area.
The complex relationship of Frieda and D.H. Lawrence would almost certainly provide for a more interesting play than A Moon to Dance By's story of a woman who abandons her husband and three young children, and properly expects her now adult son to love her unconditionally because she was following the call of her loins.
A Moon to Dance By continues performances - Tues.-Sat. 8 PM/ Sun. 7 pm (excluding 12/13)/ Sat.& Sun. 2 pm/ Thurs. 12/10 - 2 pm through December 13, 2009 at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901. Box Office: 732-246-7717; online: www.GSPonline.org.
A Moon to Dance By by Thom Thomas; directed by Edwin Sherin