Madagascarby J. T. Rogers. Directed by James Warwick. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Threads from the wrong pattern."
Paul O'Brien and Debra Jo Rupp; photo: Rick Teller
Chester Theatre Company opens its 25th season with a mystery play that comes loaded with special awards dating back a decade but which has yet to see a major production on the American theatrical scene. This is unfortunate as the play has special rewards for astute theater-goers. Though seemingly a collection of monologues by three characters, Lillian, her daughter June and Lillian's now dead husband's best friend and colleague Nathan, these three are never alone on stage, always being joined by Lillian's son, Paul and a host of colleagues, friends and strangers whom they all encounter over the length of Paul's lifetime.
Paul is missing. In the present of the play he has been gone for five years and is now presumed to be dead. "People disappear," June says in the opening monologue of the play, "they disappear all the time." The question here is how and why and exactly when did Paul disappear? And was it something done to him, or has he gone dark on his own? This peculiar murder mystery is one of small enlightenments as each characters slowly discloses what she or he knows, when they knew it, and what it ultimately means to the larger story.
Set in a hotel room in Rome that each of the principal characters has previously occupied, the play unfolds its tightly secured petals, like a dark red rosebud might, only to disclose more veiled secrets and small mysteries that finally make sense and which inform two specific deaths that are added to one earlier one and another presumed to have occurred. It is a play of hopeful despair. It is a celebration of lives lived out to their limited fullness.
Kim Stauffer plays June who works as a tour guide in Rome. June is marginally depressed and living a duplicitous existence having given up a high visibility slot in the corporate world where her inherited knack for economic strategies had her on a fast track for major success. Her deep despondency over her brother's sudden disappearance has left her without the necessary grasp on reality to move forward with her life (a major consideration for the characters in this place as Lillian keeps indicating). Stauffer does stupor beautifully. Her monologues drift in and out of monotone at just the right moments and when she brings June dutifully alive she gives the girl a heightened edginess that is just right.
Nathan is played by Paul O' Brien. Nathan has many secrets, a few of them known to every other character in the play without him initially realizing it. O'Brien give a wistfulness to the man who is left to tidy up the messes his close ones leave behind them. Paul's disappearance is not the only loss that Nathan suffers in this play. He loses a friend, a lover, a woman who covets him and a young man he would mentor if that man would have him as a friend. By the time the play ends this survivor, and this actor plays survivor with all the conotations of the word fully and broadly embraced, lives on to a new day truly alone for the first time, but perhaps not really for the first time. O'Brien does a wonderful job with this difficult part.
It is Lillian upon whom actions speak louder than words. Unhappiness can not be solved for her with a lovely house outside of Geneva Switzerland and an annual trip to Rome, to a hotel overlooking the Spanish Steps. Her difficult grief can never be assuaged by simple things. Lillian, played to perfection by Debra Jo Rupp, is a complex creature, part whisper, part scream, part cat and part badger, part slut, part saint, part mother, part child. As played by Rupp she is a demon in a stylish dress whose worst trait is proclaiming her happiness when underneath she is another creature altogether. Rupp has a broad smile which she uses to both express her feelings and hide them as well, sometimes simultaneously, and when she does both she is acting for the role and basically outdoing Elizabeth Taylor, Kathleen Turner, Cherry Jones and anyone else you can conjure. In this strangely sympathetic role Debra Jo Rupp is using every skill she possesses with her blessed talent to create a woman we empathize with, sympathize with, criticize and castigate.
Director James Warwick marks his return to the Berkshire stages with a play that presents unique challenges. Is it a murder mystery or just one of those incessant Liam Neeson "Missing" movies? Warwick challenges the challenges to conquer him and his talented cast; rather than solve puzzles he amplifies them with unanticipated physical gestures and long glances at the backs of people who cannot be present in a scene being played out for the audience. Rupp, in a perfect dress created for her by costume designer Arthur Oliver, is typical clay in the hands of Warwick. On a set of browns, golds, beiges and off-whites, her black and white contrast dress keeps her visible and constantly moving even when she is absolutely still. The director understands how crucial it to be that the audience never lose sight of Lillian and he has made this possible by always keeping her either in the light or on its edge, a peripheral vision of her always possible.
Travis A. George's set is just right. Lara Dubin's lighting design and projections enhance the deeper moods of the play. Tom Shread does well with his sound design choices.
This is an intriguing play about life, love and death, the need for decisions and the desire to act on them. Direction, acting, script and design make this an ideal opener for a theater company devoted to the best in miniature. While it lasts this June is indeed busting out all over and Chester has a winning mystery without a body or a villain to start off its season. Who could ask for anything more!
Kim Stauffer; photo: Rick Teller
Debra Jo Rupp, Paul O'Brien, Kim Stauffer; photo: Rick Teller
Madagascar plays at Chester Theatre Company's home, located at the Chester Town Hall in Chester, MA through July 6. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-354-7771 or go on line to www.chesterhteatre.org.