Heroesby Gerald Sibleyras, translated by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Kevin G. Coleman.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"Possibly because most men are humorless creeps. . ."
Jonathan Epstein as Gustave; photo: Kevin Sprague
Three elderly, ill, ill-humored and ill-tempered men meet daily on a lovely terrace attached to their Military Retirement/Nursing Home. It is a place, according to Phillipe who has been there the longest, where only one birthday celebration may happen on any particular day so if there is a second occupant of the place who shares your birthday you had better beware: one of you will die soon. Tom Stoppard’s translation of the French playwright Gérald Sibleyras, now known to the English-speaking world as "Heroes" ( Le Vent des Peupliers ) is one door farce, a self-styled comedy of manners and errors, of emotional divulgences and chimerical concepts. It is a play where men of a certain age get to misbehave and they do it with gusto, charm and an adorable sense of social interplay.
At Shakespeare and Company’s home-based, off-Broadway style theater, the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, it has entered the repertory with Terence McNally’s comedy "Master Class" which opened one week ago. That other show stars Shakes&Co veteran Annette Miller and this one brings three more old-reliables onto the stage together: Jonathan Epstein, Malcolm Ingram and Robert Lohbauer. Lohbauer recently portrayed Willem Mengelberg, the orchestra conductor, Ingram the husband in "The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife" (with Miller), and Epstein so many roles that it is difficult to remember which came when. Together they have played for 56 seasons with this 35 year-old company.
And like the best of boys, they play together well. Ingram, as Phillipe, has a fainting ailment, the result of shrapnel in his head; his seizures resemble a petit mal form of epilepsy and his recovery is always the same, a memory of warlike proportions in the battles of World War I played out between two people who enjoy each other’s company. Lohbauer’s Henri indulges in afternoon strolls that are designed to open him to new experiences which he only experiences as passing glances and nods and a slightly creepy sense of dalliance. The brashness of Epstein’s Gustave, on the other hand, masks the shyness of a man unable to cope with the realities of the world in which he resides. In the course of the play’s summer season the three men plot an escape from the life they lead with their fourth companion, a handsome dog whose place in their lives each views in his own special way. Whatever happens to each of them alone, they are supported by the other two, a special friendship that is to be admired and cultivated.
Stoppard’s language in the mouths of these men provides plenty of laughs and more than a mere touch of pathos. Henri is described as "a born enthusiast" by one of his chums and that is an apt description, in its way, of each of them. They make themselves willing to fight the battles of life on another’s behalf. They plan their plans, compromising their own eager ideas to please one another. They encourage and mutually admire each other’s relationship with the dog, with the matron, Sister Madeline whose own murderous intentions they honestly believe in whether they admit this or not. In short they are boon companions who do, indeed, play well together as stated above.
A good play, though, needs conflict and here the play provides only a modicum of true interest. These are three men from different backgrounds, different areas of interest and belief. At no time are they interchangeable and the conflict is one of understanding the limitations of one another’s lives, and living within them which is often difficult to achieve. It is a gentle play, for all its guffaws and bellowings. Epstein in particular bellows and Lohbauer guffaws while Ingram enjoys every moment of every conversation even as he passes out and misses the punchlines.
Directed by Kevin G. Coleman who is no stranger to these sorts of characters, the play is an unanticipated delight. Coleman is one of three resident directors with this company, the other two being Tony Simotes and Jonathan Croy, who truly understands this sort of comic writing. His rather unique technique of keeping passive characters mobile and invigorating takes the play onto a separate plane of reality. Any one of these retirees might be a candidate for the loony ward, but as he sculpts the play Coleman takes them on a journey of fellowship that keeps us guessing up to the very end about which of them might snap first.
Epstein seems most likely. His bluster and his rigidity, his monocle and his medals are all bits of show that he makes the most of by doing the least with. He is masterly in his use of the personal prop and the personal property in creating a totally believable snob of military cut.
Lohbauer takes a trip to second childishness through his obsessive refusal to see what his friends see or to maneuver through their mutual experience with mutual enthusiasm. There are moments of control where his Henri is definitively in charge and those moments are the rituals of champions, splendidly portrayed in subtle ways. It is his subtlety that makes this performance so memorable.
Ingram has the charm and the smile and the poise of a great man cast into a pit from which there is no exit in a world where that doesn’t matter at all. He allows us to see the inner man in Phillipe while making us constantly aware of the outer trappings of a manhood compromised by a single experience from which there is no escape. Ingram does what he does with an honesty that is uncompromising.
In a world where words are tools, tools that Stoppard wields with a professional flair and a professional flare, this play is a triumph of limitations. Even in writing about it the same words float up from the visceral into the ether constantly. Stoppard’s control of his characters through their speech reaches across the fourth wall and into the audience and the only comments are superlatives and the superlatives become commonplace.
This won’t be everyone’s favorite play. It is, perhaps, too cerebral in its world where ideas don’t amount to much at the end. It is perhaps too contrived to satisfy the needs of the serious. It is also, perhaps, too simple to accommodate the playgoer who wants to learn about the world through the mind of an author. Here there is little to learn, little to appreciate, little that seriously engages us. What there is, instead, is laughter over the little things, the losses that time brings to men who were once on a trajectory to greatness but who stepped off the path to catch a breath and lost their way instead.
Having this multiple prize-winning piece on the stage in our local center of art and culture is a treat, however, and having a company comprised of fascinating men doing their fascinated best to both enlighten and enthrall is not something you get to witness every day. But you do here. And you should now.
Robert Lohbauer as Henri; Photo: Kevin Sprague
Malcolm Ingram as Phillipe; Photo: Kevin Sprague
Heroes plays in repertory at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre on the Shakespeare & Company campus at 70 Kemble Street in Lenox, Massachusetts through September 1. For schedule, information and tickets call the box office at 413-637-3353 or go on line to www.shakespeare.org.