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Writing for CurtainUp NYC Weather
|A CurtainUp Review
By Dolores Whiskeyman
In the vineyards of 19th century Normandy a young boy dreams of flight. "Little bird," his father calls him and strokes his hair. His angry mother has other words. Poor Pierre. He longs to touch God, but he can only play with feathers.
What is and what can never be form the tensions of Available Light, a play with music by Helen Hayes winner Heather McDonald, now at Signature Theatre in Arlington. Directed by the author, Available Light is a knock-your-socks-off production with an all-star cast. With such Washington luminaries as Naomi Jacobson, Jon Tindle and Nancy Robinette, the production promises great things, and it delivers-much of the time.
The production is one of those rare experiences in theatre where every element works in perfect concert. James Kronzer's set echoes McDonald's spare language. Metal rods stand in for grapevines and feathers for hail and dust. Anne Kennedy's costuming is equally spare, but effective in its understatement, as is the lighting by Jonathan Blandin and the original score by David Maddox .
As a director, McDonald shapes the story through a succession of images, some so beautiful that you almost don't care if there's a play underneath it all. Almost. The play is so rich in atmosphere that you don't notice at first that not much has really happened. And after a while, the author's infatuation with her own poetry begins to wear the patience thin. But the play redeems itself mightily with the vigor of its second act, and by the last moment, the excesses of act one are forgotten and forgiven.
The play is inspired by the true story of a 19th century mass murder. Inexplicably, one June morning in 1835, a boy in the village of Aunay picked up a pruning hook and hacked his mother to death. Then he turned his attentions to his brother and sister. The case set precedent not for the gruesome nature of the crimes but the innovation of the defense--insanity.
But McDonald is fascinated with the forces that led to the murders, and so she opens in the vineyards as Victoire Riviere (Jacobson) toils with her husband Daniel (Mark Alan Gordon) and children, Pierre, Clothilde, and Jules (Jason Bowcutt, Colleen Delany, and Jeff Lofton). She endures the company of others in the vineyard, a set of annoying locals played by Robinette, Ian LeValley, Tindle, and John Lescault, who reappear to taunt her throughout the play.
Victoire is a bitter woman--constantly reminding her complacent husband that her father "fought in the revolution" and that their lives never quite lived up to her hopes, although McDonald doesn't say what those hopes were, exactly. Frustrated, Victoire disappears for hours at a time in the afternoons to sketch the woods, even in the densest fog. .
"You have to use the light that's available", is Victoire's observation to Pierre, whom she criticizes for his ambitions to become a priest. She is too bitter to maintain any faith at all-and her estrangement from her son seems irrevocable. Yet, McDonald fashions an interesting turn for her characters. Disillusioned by a hailstorm that destroys the vineyard, Pierre begins to doubt-and as his doubt grows and his longing for God transforms into a longing for flight, he and Victoire come to a brief alliance. They both discover that they are more alike in spirit than they had thought.
It all comes to naught, however, as Victoire stubbornly sets out to reclaim her late mother's farm and finds herself summarily humiliated. In this humiliation, McDonald seems to suggest, lies the seeds of the son's dark turn. Thus is Available Light a parable for our times: a mother's dreams die on the vine and are reborn in her son's murderous impulses. Exactly how, though, remains the mystery. McDonald never quite makes the case. Instead, we are left with the image of a boy fascinated by birds, and then by birds "that are broken." Despite McDonald's ruminations, in the end, Pierre's brutality seems to come from nowhere.