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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Australian writer Joanna Murray-Smith zooms in on a slice of American history in her triangle play about a brilliant poet named Honor (Susan Sullivan) who sublimates her own writing to forward the career of her journalist husband Gus (Robert Foxworth, Granville Van Dusen), only to be left after 32 years of marriage for another writer, dynamic young Claudia (Kirsten Potter).
These characters are capable of a more intriguing play than the one Murray-Smith has written and she drops clues along the way. Most problematic and mysterious is Honor whom we might see as a one-book writer but who the younger women see as a throwback to the pre-Betty Friedan era when women happily laid down their lives to be helpmates. If this play had been written 20 years ago, it might have rested on that familiar laurel alone. Today it seems bewildering and irritating, until you listen closely to the sub-text, which might have been mined for us more tellingly by the fine writer Murray-Smith is.
Although Honor accuses Gus of marrying her because of her success which gave him the opportunity to bask in reflected glory, we prick up our ears when he says in the first act, "Journalists are far superior, morally, to writers…you ask your casual little questions and then, years later, a book appears, unattributed, devastating." One wonders if that contributes to what Gus's familiar dilemma of feeling dead in the cozy prison of a 32-year marriage. Although he and Claudia also love one another's sexy minds, his rapidly loses its sex appeal when he describes her creative writing as having a kind of "over-clarity. " Claudia can decipher that as well we can. "Obviousness!""she growls and that's when she decides Gus's mind is "locked in" to "a generational thing." That may be why she tells Gus, with obvious repetition, that her love for him is predicated on how much her loss will devastate him.
Claudia is the play's most original character and the one we'd like to follow down the road Gus has pointed out to her. It would also be interesting to follow Sophie, Gus and Honor's befuddled college-age daughter, who picks up on her mother's shrinking heart when she says what Honor wants is to make life still for herself. Sophie also mournfully and beautifully describes a child's need for security as "lLying in bed and feeling that they were there."
Murray-Smith has a poet's gift for epigrams and rhythm -- "I was with him in the garden." . . . "I was with her in the kitchen." Honor and Gus almost rhyme, married couple style, when describing a literally old friend whose defection to a young girl presages Gus's own. We get to know Gus best through the reactions of the three important women in his life. Director Andrew J. Robinson projects this by spacing them across the stage behind Gus in his opening monologue. He also demonstrates Honor's domesticity by having her carry trays of drinks or coffee on and off stage, like a French maid in some four-star hotel. Robinson's insistence on both naturalness and passion gives the play its aura of fascination.
Stephanie Kerley Schwartz's set crowned with towering book cases is stunning. The dim lighting by J. Kent Inasy further underlines the under-clarity sometimes apparent in a couple Honor describes as loving words more than people.
In the performance viewed, Robert Foxworth (who alternates with Granville Van Dusen, and also played Gus in the 1998 Broadway production) finds the integrity in Gus and follows him as he veers between a maddeningly self-important success to a reborn seeker of truth. Foxworth always completely inhabits his characters and seems to know Gus better than the playwright. Kirsten Potter is sensuous and strong as Claudia and Becky Wahlstrom never loses her childlike quality as the angry miserable Sophie trying to come to terms with these new people she called parents. Susan Sullivan holds the stage as Honor with her deadpan comic timing. When describing the dinner she cooked for Claudia, who will ever forget the way Sullivan says, "She had it?" Sullivan brings a mysterious elegance to the character, lending viability to the concept that there is a world-class poet beneath the graceful façade of an earth goddess.
"Why does the heart take precedence?" Honor says bitterly. But rather than this poetic line, we feel Honor's true heart is laid bare when she says, "I don't like travel of any kind." br>
For a review of this play during its Broadway premiere in 1998 go here.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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