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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
Duet For One
By Shirley Safran
As the above quotation might suggest, this is not a play about music per se, but rather about the corrosive effect of profound loss on the heart and soul of a greatly gifted violinist whose artistic voice is stilled by multiple sclerosis. The playwright was inspired by the short, tragic life and career of Jacqueline du Pre, the great English cellist who lost her struggle with this disease several years ago.
Aside from some biographical similarities: Stephanie Abrahams, the violinist in the play, is married to a musician superstar, as was du Pre. The play is essentially an exploration of the increasingly contentious relationship between Stephanie and the psychiatrist, Dr. Feldmann, whom she reluctantly visits as he challenges her to open her heart and let her feelings out. Easier said than done.
In the first scene Stephanie arrives in a motorized wheelchair, sleekly coifed, stylishly dressed, and cheerily chirpy in that stiff- upper-lip approach to life that is so typically British. She declares that she is coping marvelously well, her husband is a rock, she expects some changes, but nothing drastic, so what am I doing here and thank you very much. All of this is delivered in staccato statements, punctuated by forced laughter and sardonic asides. She’s all surface beneath a coat of emotional shellac.
As expected, Feldmann’s professional demeanor is detached, but interested and concerned. He recognizes that she is in deep denial about her circumstances, which involve fleeting thoughts of suicide. He prescribes medication to ease her masked depression and anxiety. The battle is joined. The duet becomes a duel of wills between an increasingly desperate and dysfunctional patient and a doctor determined to save her life (he reveals he has lost a few clients to suicide ). In the play's searing penultimate scene this determination changes him from psychiatric detachment to philosophic engagement. Feldmann confronts Stephanie, passionately professing his belief that she must live life to the fullest despite her circumstances.
. As Feldman changes so does Stephanie. Her inner turmoil is made visible. She appears beaten, disheveled, and full of bilious recrimination, revealing the profound losses in her life: her adored mother’s early death, her working-class father’s attempt to stifle her musical talent, her ultimate victory and revenge as she becomes a musical prodigy -- and now this final blow of having to face a silent future without her beloved violin.
It is pitiful and terrifying to watch Stephanie's carefully crafted, refined persona crumble right before our eyes and she descends into tawdry behavior that even Feldmann finds appalling. But by forcing her to examine the anger and distress of her personal history, Feldmann helps her uncover the core of her suffering.
The last scene -- a kind of coda -- brings Stephanie back to the consulting room. She is now more outwardly as well as inwardly composed. Her disease appears under control (she can stand and walk more easily) and her mood is more tranquil as she declares her intention to end therapy, a decision with which the good doctor begs to differ.
Since Duet For One was written before the current controversies and debates concerning assisted suicide, euthanasia, the validity of living wills, etc., there is a sense of unexplored issues hanging over Feldmann’s passionate defense of life at all costs. I suspect that more than a few audience members were thinking along these lines and asking themselves some questions.
This first production of the newly-named Chester Theater Company cannot be faulted at any level. The small theater is a most hospitable venue for what is essentially a chamber work. The direction, by James Warwick, is intensely focused and full of telling emotional and visual details. For example, Stephanie’s footwear changes from the pointy-toed backless stiletto-heeled shoes on which she can barely stand, let alone walk (a poignant symbol of vanity and denial) in the early scenes, to the clunky sneakers that she wears as she becomes more seriously disabled in the later scenes. In the last scene, she is wearing sensible flat-heeled shoes.
Both Chandler Vinton as Stephanie and Kenneth Danziger as Feldmann dig deep into their roles and come up with gold. While the role of Stephanie is more outwardly flashy, the doctor's role is in some ways just as challenging. He is required to sit and really listen for long stretches. One of the marks of fine acting is to listen actively in character. This, Mr. Danziger does marvelously, which makes his transition from neutral listener to passionate advocate all the more impressive. Ms. Vinton’s role is technically demanding and emotionally wrenching and she plays it like a vintage violin.
The unifying theme of this year’s productions is "unexpected alliances", which in this case, yields unusual satisfaction.