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CurtainUp DC Review
by Kristin Johnsen-Neshati
The real D.H. Lawrence never appears in Donna Gerdin's play, but reminders of him fill the little house where three women who loved him come to mourn his death. Frieda, his German-born wife returns home with his ashes, while Mabel and Brett -- friends of the couple and rivals for Lawrence's attention -- arrive prepared to honor the writer's memory with a ceremony of their own. A reporter reads a flyer in town announcing Frieda's public memorial and comes looking for the story to launch his career. From this point on, the women struggle to present their versions of the "real" D.H. Lawrence, waging war with established fact and each other.
Based on extensive research, the play raises compelling questions about the private life of a literary celebrity. Who inspired him? What were his personal views on love and sexuality? What was he like to live with? Using the premise of planning Lawrence's memorial, Gerdin introduces us to the women who knew him best as they piece together scraps of evidence about a private life most will find surprising. This process happens with pleasing psychological turns reminiscent of Susan Glaspell's Trifles. But sometimes crucial information surfaces too abruptly. There are moments near the beginning, for instance, where one senses the playwright's need to plant all the physical evidence quickly -- the broken china, torn pictures, the photo of a family pet -- to be revisited later. And in the second act the reporter, who asks questions on behalf of the public he represents, recaps the highlights from the confessions he's heard, as if for the audience's benefit more than his own. Despite these forced moments, the play succeeds in uncovering Lawrence's personal story and, more importantly, the personal aspirations of the women who loved him.
Carl Gudenius's realistic set enhances the play's theme of getting at the truth. We see the kitchen -- a small patch of stage space filled with knickknacks, a small table with two chairs, antique housewares and mementos -- with a beaded curtain leading to Frieda's bedroom and an old screen door opening onto the New Mexico desert. Three paintings hang on invisible walls, a curious collection of rural junk is suspended overhead, and a kettle sits on the stove by the corner. These are tight quarters for the actors -- a crowded space they don't seem fully comfortable negotiating -- as well as a rich and varied world for the play.
William Pucilowsky's costumes immediately distinguish the personal styles of the characters. Frieda's clothing combines an odd measure of girlish frilliness with seductive flair. Brett appears as a self-styled artiste, whose delicate features are overpowered by the personal statement she appears to be making with an eccentric get-up including head scarves, dangly jewelry and boots. Mabel is elegantly dressed in simple, feminine fashions that reflect her understated, aristocratic style. Nick, the reporter, appears in light colors and crisp fabrics, underscoring his professionalism, youth and the fresh perspective he offers as an outsider peering into a celebrity's private world.
In contrast with the production's overall realism, anything less than authentic becomes especially distracting. Sudden changes in the lighting, an implausible detergent box, a contemporary stainless steel container posing as a silver urn, a faux-turquoise belt and contemporary synthetic fabrics -- these are the choices that weaken the stylistic world the director and designers have otherwise carefully constructed.
Brilane Bowman (Frieda) brings humor, earthiness and smarts to her role as the calculating widow looking to profit off her husband's death. Her German accent is convincing, and she maintains the audience's focus whenever she's on stage. While she occasionally overplays the humor, as if forcing some expected laughs, her performance is generally grounded from scene to scene and drives the play forward.
Katrina Van Duyn (Mabel) plays the sensible patron who first invited Lawrence to stay with her and her husband to pursue his writing. Van Duyn brings a sense of reassuring calm and decorum to the role, betrayed near the end in an impassioned battle to preserve the writer's reputation. While she gives a strong performance overall, Van Duyn might have expanded her role's emotional range if she had further emphasized the character's menacing quality.
Rosemary Regan (Brett) interprets her role of the flighty would-be artist with alternating bursts of exuberance and long spells of self-doubt -- except in an unexpected and delightful moment of defiance when she stands up to Mabel to set the record straight. These moods serve the character when she's engaged in the action, but often the actor allows these feelings to absorb her and grows passive when she listens to others.
Arthur Rosenberg (Nick Allen) plays the ambitious, young reporter whose agenda is unmistakable. His character comes across as charming, energetic and respectable, until he surprises the women for the sake of his story.
While Dorothy Neumann directs the action at a brisk pace and finds most of the play's natural rhythms, she might have accentuated the shifts in power among the three women, allowing the production to take on a more sinister tone near the end. With respect to direction, several instances arise where the audience must ignore improbabilities in the action. The actors' movement around the tiny set sometimes looks artificial, as if they had been told to deliver their lines down center at an unnatural angle, or sit downstage without turning their backs to the audience. Frieda stretches her full, sleepy body as if she's getting comfortable, but she does so in a tiny straight-backed chair, creating an unconvincing image of relaxation. In a fit of anxiety, Brett sits listening to conversation chewing on her apron sash to communicate her agitated state. (If this is meant to be a character trait, it's puzzling that we never see it again.) Mabel and Brett arrive at Frieda's house complaining about the filth, yet the amount of work required to meet their standards seems surprisingly little -- including Brett's sweeping the dirt under a bookshelf. Mabel appears to be a neatnik when she enter's Frieda's house, yet within a few scenes she's eating food off of other people's plates and drinking beer out of used mugs. The greatest confusion arises, however, when a character uses a forbidden object -- a box of detergent, a collection of broken china, an open tin of the dead writer's ashes -- and is interrupted by the person who mustn't know it's being used. Despite their close proximity to each other, the character who should make the discovery fails to do so until the dramatic tension is already spent.
Despite its weaknesses, Losing Lawrence is a production worth seeing. Neumann and Gudenius create an engaging world for the play. Bowman and Van Druyn offer an entertaining battle of wills. Gerdin uses an episode from literary history to get at the truth behind her absent central character, and Lawrence's readers should appreciate the playwright's complex approach to uncovering the truth about his controversial life.
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