Her Name is Vincent; an evening with Edna St. Vincent Millay written by Cynthia Croot, Margi Sharp Douglas, Rachel Murdy, Deborah Philips, Steven Katz and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Directed by Cynthia Croot. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
“But what is that to us?”
Mixed blessings adorn a show about sisters, real life sisters who have become something of a mystery to the general public, so many years after the death of all three. Taken as a vaudeville it is quite satisfactory, with characters who claim no reality. Taken as biography it provides a questionable load of "independent film" style mishigas peppered with fine, quirky performances.
In 1919, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote, and produced at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village, her one-act play “Aria da Capo.” Six years later she moved to Austerlitz, New York with her husband Eugen Boissevain, taking up residence on a 700-acre working farm she dubbed Steepletop. She died there in 1950 at the age of 58 leaving all her worldly possessions - including her writings - to her sister Norma Millay Ellis. Norma lived in the house for 36 years dying there at the age of 93. During that time she worked doggedly to preserve the home and the gardens her sister had created at Steepletop, and attempted to keep the house looking exactly as it had looked on the day when Vincent died. She also worked to keep Vincent and her poetry and plays in the public eye.
Now, all these years later, Norma is back. New York City’s Magis Theatre Company is presenting a new play about the sisters and their lives at the Abingdon Theatre Company’s complex on West 36th Street for a brief run. In two parts the show presents an economically realized overview of Vincent’s life, as seen through the eyes of her overly possessive sister Norma, and Norma’s idealized recasting of the 1919 play that made Vincent world-famous overnight. “Verrrrry interrrresssssting” one might say, rolling the r’s and hissing the sibilance. The women who conceived and created this show have been addressing the issues of Vincent and Norma’s relationship for several years through different approaches and this new work is the most elaborate version yet. We get to meet Charles Ellis in the flesh, Norma’s actor/painter husband. We also get to see something of Eugen. Finally there is Kathleen Millay, the third sister, the ephemeral one who, born last, died Young, Kathleen Millay Young, that is. Kathleen’s struggle for recognition is part of the plot of this play and one that need development. She has been eliminated from the dialogues, as she was in life, but she is still a presence, one that haunts Vincent and as such we need to know more about her. The performance of “Aria da Capo” becomes an oddity through the visual identities from part one of the play transposed into characters in Millay’s play. Norma plays her original role but her husband plays her vis-a-vis instead of the shepherd Corydon - his original role - while the Boissevain’s take on the roles of shepherd-partners who become rivals. The casting is mind-boggling in some ways, especially if you understand the dynamics among the real people being portrayed. Enough of perspective. Let us now address the evening of theater at hand. This show is fun. Norma Millay is at the center of everything, something that Norma herself would have adamantly denied while creating just such a milieu with herself at the center. As played by Rachel Murdy Norma is hilarious. She can be charming, devilish, mean-spirited, phony, musical, loving, supportive and destructive in the same amount of time it takes to read this list of attributes aloud. Murdy makes quixotic changes that never seem unnatural or impossible. At one point she remarks that she may be talking too much; she seems to never stop talking actually while, in fact, she actually does now and then. At the end of the experience we understand that Norma adores her sister Vincent and aspires to be her even though she knows that is not going to happen. There is no sadness in this, just understanding. If anything she exhibits a bit too much glee at the final burial of her sister’s presence in Aria da Capo, but her look and her decisions here are just wonderful to behold. Margi Sharp takes on Vincent in a languid, sometimes stuporous manner that works to the advantage of the character. She and Norma are so different, in so many different ways, that this portrayal becomes just about as right as it could be whether or not it represents the poet properly. When the two sing together, as they often do, there is a blending of voices and emotions that rings true. Erika Iverson is the mute Kathleen and her presence, appearance and demeanor suggest a child who never grows up. She is not yet the presence she should be, so there is little to be said about her, except to note that her constant writing becomes a focal point for the eyes while so much else on stage is a focal point for the ears and the mind. Thomas Piper plays Charlie pretty much as described in the various interviews about him. He takes a back seat to Norma and seems content to do so. Piper plays with charm and grace this man whose career as an actor brought him limited fame and much praise. The Eugen Boissevain of George Drance is dynamic and the “heavy” of the show. He has things to say which delineate his relationship with Norma and things to do which illuminate his relationship with Vincent. He handles everything uniformly well. This cast is very good at what they do in Part One. Murdy’s Norma is a dynamic and hysterically silly Columbine, her 1920s demeanor seemingly right on the money in that role. Piper’s Charlie doesn’t really take Pierrot far enough into the Commedia realm. Drance’s Eugen makes Corydon understandable and dynamic. Sharp’s Vincent plays Thyrsis as too much a poet, too little a man and too far from the villain he needs to become. In addition, Frank Mihelich plays the offstage Cothurnus in too “far-away” a manner to suit. Cynthia Croot has directed her company in this three-quarter round stage setting especially well. In particular her almost off-the-cuff Norma works brilliantly. As one of the creators of this play she has extended her influence to the movement of each character helping to form the outer and inner persons with equal strength. The set by David M. Barber is wonderful. Juliann E. Kroboth’s costumes are nicely designed and help create the three women, in particular, to perfection. Raquel Davis’s lighting is effective and Steven Katz, as pianist and musical director, has helped immeasurably to create mood and period. The eventual fate of this play is uncertain and so it should be seen as soon as possible. I think there is still some work to be done before the final form of this evening is complete, but to see it now is to see it at its freshest (and that is meant both in terms of produce and actor instincts). Her Name is Vincent is a play about the relationships among sisters as seen through the eyes of only one of them. It’s an evening with Norma, played by Norma’s rules. It is something to see.
The show plays through November 14 at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre/Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex, 312 West 36th Street in New York City . For tickets and information call 212-868-2055.