The influence of one state over all others. Thatís the topic of Wendy Wassersteinís final play, now ending the main stage season of the Oldcastle Theatre Companyís 2009 season in Bennington, Vermont. A bright and illuminating play, given a sterling and moving production, it is only on hand for a little bit over a week. Thatís too short a time for this production.
Wasserstein died in 2005, just at the time this play opened at Lincoln Center for an all-too brief run. It seems that Oldcastle must cut short the life of this play in our region just as Wassersteinís life was cut short four years ago. The original production starred Dianne Wiesst, Charles Durning, Amy Aquino and Jason Ritter. Who would have thought a cast like that could be bettered, but Oldcastle may well have them beat. The quintet on stage at the Bennington Center for the Arts delivers every bit of influence that the script gives them with just a bit more in the visual department to help them deliver the playwrightís message.
Christine Decker plays Laurie Jameson, a professor of Literature at a small New England college. Jameson believes her teaching methods are illuminating, opening the minds of the brightest to other possibilities. She does not believe in the value of impressing minds to a single concept. Decker has the strength and the directness of Jamesonís character down perfectly and yet, when she is seen in scenes at home with her daughter or with her father, she becomes a totally different person. The darkness lifts and underneath is a person whose radiance is impossible to conceal. Here she is Laurie, loving and restrained and not Professor Jameson, all fire and passion.
The two sides of her personality, however, become crossed when she confronts a student who defies her belief in her own sense of judgement and approvals. Decker is a shrewd actress. She crosses these lines deftly and with a seamlessness that brings Jameson alive on stage. She fades into the background and only Laurie Jameson exists. Itís a triumphant performance that magically transforms us as we watch her dance with her Alzheimer-ridden Dad, as we see her destroy her oldest friendship with intolerance, as she destroys her relationship with her daughter. We can even buy her apologetic and remorseful self in the final scenes because she has refused to allow her one major mistake of hegemony to destroy the person she has always managed to be in her life.
"I still know what I know," she states at the end of Act One and by the time she reaches the end of Act Two this fact is still a prime factor in her existence, but it has taken her to new places she never assumed she would find.
As the student who inspires her wrath, Loren Dunn turns in a stellar performance. He is nuanced and subtle, strong when silent and stronger when speaking. He brings a fully fleshed out characterization to the stage as he is confronted with a charge of plagiarism and counters it with a reality that comes unexpectedly to the bitter fore with his off-school job as a bartender.
Jenny Strassberg plays Emily, daughter of Laurie Jameson, student and demi-radical who would rather love a man who believes in himself than become a replica of her mother whose concerns with the human condition sometimes obliterate her love for her own child. Strassberg delivers nicely in this role. When she leaves the domestic and academic situations behind we are almost relieved and yet there is a chill to it, partly based on what we have seen that Emily has not in her motherís relationship with her own aged father. That chill is the recognition in her resolve that may preclude her own caregiving to a mother who may one day need her.
Paula Mann plays the friend, another professor whose cancer has caused her to leave her favorite class to Jameson who betrays her trust - not professionally but personally - and removes herself from the friendship that had saved her more than once. Again, the influence of one state over all others drives a wedge between the two and Nancy (Mannís character) cannot support Jamesonís groundless allegations. The final scene between the two of them, awkward, distant and difficult, is a moving realization of twenty-five years having become almost meaningless under the stresses of the present. Mann knows just which buttons to push in this scene and she makes the most of every chance.
In two scenes Carleton Carpenter as Laurie Jamesonís ailing Dad tears out the hearts of every audience member and replaces them with bits of his own. I cannot believe there is a person able to withstand the emotional sweetness of half-remembered relationships, recognition difficulties and Glenn Millerís music. Carpenter delivers a frail human being with a strong image and a cultured sensibility. In every sentence we see and hear the younger Jack Jameson and in every action we see and appreciate the remains of a human soul. The musical moment between him and his daughter, a dancing moment, is one that will stay with me, and with most people I am certain, for a very long time.
Eric Peterson has delivered a beautiful baby in Third. It should be every personís duty to pay a visit to Oldcastle this week to see what he and Wendy Wasserstein have produced as a gift to an unexpectant public. Itís as simple as that: one influence over all others; attend the play.
Third plays at the Oldcastle Theatre Companyís Bennington Center for the Arts stage through October 11. For schedules and tickets call 802-447-0564.