The Countess by Gregory Murphy. Directed by Kate Gulliver.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"One never truly knows another human being."
In Gregory Murphy’s play, "The Countess," we are introduced to two generations of the quirky Ruskin clan including the famous art critic John James, Jr., his father and his mother (who is also his cousin), and his wife Effie (or Euphemia). We get to know them all pretty well in the course of the two hours of the drama. The difficulty with the piece, however, it seems to me is that the title character, Effie, is shunted to the side of the stage most of the time so that the raging ego that is John, the younger, can dominate the play. Murphy has titled the play accordingly; Countess is a nickname given to Effie by the pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais - a protegee of Ruskin’s, and the story centers on her need to escape a loveless, possessive marriage which in six years has never been consummated and flee to a man who adores her and whom she loves in turn.
So why does Ruskin hold center stage so often? His is the best defined character. He is surrounded by his own people, including his crazy Evangelical Christian mother. He has solo time in each act. He is so dynamic a man that he draws attention to himself in every crisis he finds raging, whether or not it is his own. Director Kate Gulliver has used this aspect of the script to create a play that absolves itself of responsibility to its real subject and has found an actor to play young Ruskin whose limitations make him into a figure you cannot help watch.
However, what this does to the play is make it an uncomfortable fit in its own environment. While some plays seem to have second act difficulties this show has most of its problems in the first act. We need to sympathize with Effie and we are drawn away from her, distanced so that this very important emotional connection is not established. As offstage voices argue about the woman and her social position in the opening darkness we are attuned to a woman and a woman’s story. But the first person we see is Ruskin, played here by Todd Hamilton, a man whose acting chops are not ready for this role but whose hands are so mighty and so engrossing that we are compelled in the harsh white front light to watch them gesture and gesticulate as he stands, otherwise, stock still.
Hamilton remains stationary in most of his scenes. Gulliver uses him as a polarcentric aspect of all relationships where his stage position allows others to stare at him, yell at him, talk at him while he can manipulate everyone from one spot on the stage. Even when he is not center, he is the center of all attention and this adds to the concept that the play is about him and not about "The Countess." Those mighty hands move when he doesn’t. In arguments, and in emotional breakdowns, Hamilton’s Ruskin is almost always in one secure spot, his hands clenching, stretching, bending into circles, grasping or petting his coat lapels. Perhaps this is a true and honest realization of the actual man but it diverts us from the drama happening around him for he is never fully a part of any interaction that includes him.
On the other side of the picture is Anya Krawcheck who plays Effie. Throughout the first half of the evening she is fighting to stay in the picture. If she were allowed to get more than three feet from her stage husband, if she could turn from him, or approach him, attack him or adore him, she might stand a chance for she is a good actress, an asset to this or any production. In the second act she comes into her own as her physicality finally begins to border on the historically beautiful figure of renown that was Effie Gray Ruskin. Krawcheck is very appealing in this part. As the titular center of attention, though, she has been held back in the shadow of her stage husband and that seems unfair.
The senior Ruskins are played to a fare-thee-well by Lael Locke and Glenn Barrett. Barrett as the unmanning father figure is dynamic and alarming. His initial sense of concern for his son’s well-being turns into a Victorian illusion of head-of-household manliness which denies any emotion and any interest in anything other than protecting reputations. In the second act scene in which Ruskin seems to be having a mental seizure Barrett infuses the moment with honesty and understanding by seeming to refuse any acceptance that his son is less than perfect.
Similarly Locke is turning in the finest performance of her career on this Ghent stage. Her sterner sensibilities hold court here and she turns Margaret Ruskin into a cautious step-sister of the Wicked Witch of the West. Her Margaret says things she clearly cannot mean and when you understand the underlying rationale it is chilling. This is a performance that is worth the price of admission and even when young Ruskin is on stage with her it is hard to take your eyes off her.
Holding her own as Lady Eastlake is Cathy Lee-Visscher who turns this role into something to write about. There is a low-key honesty about her interpretation in one of Murphy’s best written scenes during which Lady E. confronts Margaret R. Neither woman emerges a clear winner, but Lee-Visscher’s Eastlake appears to be triumphant and that is all that matters for the moment.
Rounding out the company is Tracy Trimm as the loyal servant Crawley who has several oddly clarifying moments when a look says all that is needed.
It is the oddity of Michael Meier as the painter Millais that almost crumbles away the play. His height and his voice are wonderful, making him a strikingly interesting romantic counterpart for Krawchek’s Effie. But the director, or the designer, has placed him in a wig that is neither flattering nor romantic, and not quite period either, which prevents us from seeing him as a successful suitor to this married woman who, in accepting him as a swain, is seemingly moving from one outrageous ego to another. This would be a good role for Meier who has taken on romantic leads before, but the look he is working with actively fights his romantic sense for prominence.
Joanne Maurer is responsible for the fine costumes (and the awful wig?). Bill Camp has designed a brilliant set that works for every moment of the play and his lighting is moving and occasionally transforming, but never dramatic in an intrusive way. A bit of sound design might aid the long, dark or semi-dark stage waits as the set is changed (there are fifteen scenes, though only three actual locations).
This is clearly not an easy play to present, and this company has done a lot to make it into a fine evening. That it misses is just the result of choices that may have more to do with levels of experience than anything else. There is so much that is fine about this evening though that I would certainly encourage any interested theater-goer to take it in and do what I’ve been doing all this time - finding the best in what is there and trying to forget the rest. And the Countess does have her center-stage moment after all.
Todd Hamilton, Anya Krawcheck, Michael Meier in a rehearsal photo by Daniel Region
Lael Locke and Glenn Barrett in a rehearsal photo by Daniel Region
The Countess plays through October 28 at the Ghent Playhouse off Route 66 in Ghent, NY. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-392-6264 or go on line at www.ghentplayhouse.org.