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|A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
(This review originally appeared at The Berkshire Connection)
When a summer theater with a short run schedule puts on a first-rate production, it's always amazing to contemplate the effort and dedication expended for such short lived rewards.The carefully crafted and costly sets will just go away, as will the actors who managed to do their very best after often inadequate rehearsal time. This brings me to Jitta's Atonement which just opened at Berkshire Theatre Festival's John and Jane Fitzpatrick Mainstage. To paraphrase the closing line without giving anything away: "It's too good for just a ten day run!" Director Harris Yulin and artistic director Arthur Storch deserve much praise for pulling this little known George Bernard Shaw rarity out of mothballs.
Since even the most ardent Shaw devotees have never heard of Jitta's Atonement it's clearly the show's star, Dianne Wiest, who contributed to its being all sold out by the time it opened. While Wiest does indeed bring all of her quirky charm and humor to the role of Jitta Lenkheim, there are considerable additional assets to consider.
For starters, there's the play itself. It begins too slowly and doesn't fully take off until the second act. However, it's not just another old chestnut that should never have been unpacked from its seven decades of obscurity. If nothing else, it's a fascinating collaboration between the famous Irish playwright and an aspiring Austrian playwright named Siegfried Trebietsch whose main claim to fame was and is as Shaw's German translator. Shaw became the younger man's mentor by offering to translate his romantic tragedy Jitta's Atonement into English, a daunting endeavor considering his inability to speak German. Yet translate it he did, keeping his impulse to inject his own ideas into the play in control at the beginning but (to the play's great benefit) succumbing to his Shavian instincts in the final act. The result is a play that transforms a tragic situation into a comedy laced with lines that are pure Shaw. Despite Shaw's injection of his own comic wit the play's 1923 London production, sank without a ripple. The friendship of the two men apparently survived even his association with Shaw's buried his own ambitions for immortality. It's a friendship that almost calls for another play altogether.
At the center of the plot's numerous comedic misunderstandings is "a secret that couldn't be kept" --the affair of the wife of a prominent doctor with one of his colleagues. Unlike the husband whom she's come to regard as a selfish pragmatist his friend, and her lover, satisfies her highly developed sense of the romantic. Her affair ends abruptly and tragically, leaving Jitta consumed with grief and guilt at not coming up to her own standards of noblility. But put away your handkerchief. This may sound like Trebitsch's tragedy, but Jitta's dilemma and heartbreak moves towards its inevitable conclusion along a trail of Shaw-induced laughter. And it is the Shaw wit that makes this gives what would otherwise be an old chestunut its polish.
Jitta's Atonement is further enriched by the other actors. Jon DeVries as Alfred Lenkheim is more than a match for Wiest's Jitta. He is completely convincing in his 100 degree turnaround from pompous conformist to something quite different from the "chump" he declares all husbands to be. If a playwright gives his favorite characters the best lines, Alfred must have been the one he liked most. The confrontations between husband and wife represent the play's wittiest aspects, with double-edged repartee flying back and forth. To Alfred's "I am very much alive" Jitta slyly retorts "Not that much!" When he declares that he will never speak to her again she snaps back "Sounds too good to be true!" Emerging from beneath all the sparring are the perfectly timed personality transformations. The parts of the Haldenstedt women are equally well evolved. Elizabeth Franz playing the mother and Calista Flockhart the daughter, are wonderful. Scott Cohen as Edith's fiance unfortunately doesn't do justice to his role as a younger, gentler Alfred.
The cast' s general effectiveness owes much to the direction of Harris Yulin. His brief acting stint early on in the play is not particularly noteworthy but as a director he maneuvers the players around the stage with the skill of a virtuoso juggler. Miguel Romero's sets give Yulin and the other actors a space that visually deepens the stage which is actually somewhat narrow. I liked the way the colorful curtain painted with an image of Wiest on a settee, opened drapery-style and the way the audience sees the wall for the scene in the Lenkheim home go up before its eyes. In the second act the Lenkheim's home turns into the lighter, brighter Haldenstedt home by removing the set's panels. Pamela Scofield also deserves mention for her costumes. The ruby red gown with its cocoa-colored cape and veiled hat in which Wiest makes her entrance is especially striking, making her as sensuously ravishing as a Viennese pastry.
Is the play one that would appeal only to the predominantly older audiences who fill up the Berkshire stages? Not, if the several thirty-something people who sat near me at the opening are an indication. A young woman from New Jersey, seeing my press kit, asked if I thought this would come to New York, as she felt it should. After the success of Oscar Wilde's least popular play, The Ideal Husband it's possible -- but unlikely. The Trebitsch play is a chestnut and with plenty of all Shaw plays to choose from it's unlikely that half a Shaw would have sufficient pull for Broadway or Off-Broadway producers or, for that matter, audiences. That's why it would be nice if a summer sell-out like this could be scheduled as the last play of the season, with the season extended for a summer-into-fall run.