©Copyright 1998, Elyse Sommer.
A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
The Plains of Ilion
By Elyse Sommer
Marriage has often been likened to a battleground with Edward Albee's George and Martha the epitome of the fictional couple from hell, their battle so intense that it makes other unhappy relationships seem benign by comparison. In Steven Sater's new marital drama, we meet yet another incarnation of George and Martha, Jonathan (Anderson Matthews), a professor of ancient Greek literature and Catherine (Carolyn Swift) his increasingly bitter and frustrated wife. The setting is a typical university town. The trigger point that explodes the seething discontent simmering beneath the couple's surface civility, is a young student (Tary Chevalier) — the sort of acolyte who has long served as the bane and siren song of college professors, particularly those on the brink of middle age.
To give the familiar triangle situation in which a student at once bright and beautiful becomes a threat to an already threatened (by ennui and neglect) campus marriage a twist, Sater has used the Greek epic that serves as the subject of Jonathan's lectures and the commandments by which he lives. Thus he shuttles us from Jonathan's lectures about the battles of the ancient Greeks to his real battle with temptation and his desperate and enraged wife.
In case you've let your copy of the Iliad gather cobwebs, Ilium, a.k.a. Troy was besieged for ten years by an army of Greeks and finally captured and sacked to regain Helen and avenge her abduction from King Menelaus by the Trojan prince, Paris. As unfolded in the epic poem, this was but an incident, lasting some seven weeks in the tenth year of the war. The wrath of the Greek hero, Achilles, which serves as the unifying theme of all of the Iliad' s twenty-four books, is caused by the Greek commander Agamemnon's demand that Achilles surrender one of his handmaiden. Eventually the Greeks are humbled and the epic ends on a chivalrous note of reconciliation.
Sater's script is filled with scraps of Greek, both as part of Jonathan's lectures and in his interchanges with Catherine and Susan. But not to worry, the playwright's intent is clearly not to replicate a college course in ancient Greek literature but to capture some of the epic poem's sense of stateliness. While somewhat too talky it isn't a play that will leave you lost in a sea of "it's all Greek to me" rhetoric. The correlation between legend and reality is easily accessible and under Byam Stevens' firm direction shifts smoothly between the then and now elements of Sater's drama. To strengthen the connection between ancient Greece and the world of a modern campus town, Louisa Thompson has designed a spare evocation of a Greek amphitheater, an all white set with steps leading towards three props at either side and the center of the stage. The side pieces serves as lecture podium and kitchen respectively, the rectangular block in the middle metamorphoses from desk to dining table, to bed.
All told, The Plains of Ilion is an intriguing play, intriguingly staged. And yet, in the final analysis you're left feeling let down with a sense that the battle fought on this stage wasn't as stirring, groundbreaking or thought provoking as the link to the source led us to expect. Part of this comes from a rather bland performance by Tary Chevalier. Her Susan lacks the needed spark. Anderson Matthews works hard at tapping into Jonathan's passionate belief in the ancient myths that have built his career and moral belief system. He succeeds, but only sporadically, which leaves Carolyn Swift to carry the burden of the emotions simmering beneath this tranquilly uncluttered exterior. She does so with convincing intensity.
According to the program notes this play has already undergone extensive rewrites. Perhaps, with a few more go-arounds, it will live up to its potential. Even in its present imperfect state, it is well worth a trip to the Chester Town Hall which has been home to this small and enterprising theater company for eight season. If you go Wednesday or Sunday afternoons, you'll have a chance to participate in one of the discussions the company calls "Talkbacks" and if you're around to catch an opening performance you can partake of a gala opening night dinner at the Chester Deport for just $11.50. (Ticket p[rices are a bargain priced $16; $14 for seniors and students). The next opening is a world premiere of The Lower Cortex, by Robert Clyman, on July 29th (Reservations are a must for the dinner).