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A CurtainUp Review

Savannah Bay

Someone weeps with happiness because she is going to die of love
--- the rationale for the suicide central to the gradually unraveled past in Savannah Bay
Kathleen Chalfant & Marin Ireland
Kathleen Chalfant & Marin Ireland (Photo: Dixie Sheridan)
It's not really difficult to extract the story from this dramatized tone poem. However, if you're not enamored of nontraditional staging techniques that require you to retrieve that story from the shards of dialogue spoken by two actors moving through a maze of murky memories, you'll find Savannah Bay tough sledding. While you couldn't wish for a finer pair to engage in this melancholy pas de deux than Kathleen Chalfant and Marin Ireland, you may, as I did, come away thinking that even at just sixty-five minute, it adds up to a gossamer thin drama that would be more satisfying on the page than the stage.

French Indochina born Marguerite Duras (1914-1996) wrote more than seventy novels and was also a playwright, film director and screenwriter. This story, shades of her famously filmed short novel The Lover, is about a passionate affair between a young girl and an older man. In this case, however, the girl's passion, which appears to have ended with her drowning herself immediately after delivering a daughter, is filtered through the fragmented interaction between her grandmother Madeleine (Chalfant) and daughter (Ireland-- identified only as Young Woman). While second hand smoke can be almost as powerful as the real thing, second hand and filtered memories make for a less visceral experience, even when teased from the shadows by two such gifted actors.

My caveats aside, director Les Walters has succeeded in presenting Savannah Bay in the hypnotic style of "theater that is read, not acted " which Duras claimed to have invented. The two women appear on stage gorgeously gowned by Ilona Somogyi, Chalfant's in a striking red , Ireland's a less flamboyant purple. A song by the late chanteuse Edith Piaf playing in the background is the first device the Young Woman uses to tease forth recollections from Madeleine who seems psychologically disoriented, almost like a dimentia patient, but her bearing is regal and controlled. The women talk (conversation is too natural a word to describe these stylized exchanges), drink tea, walk hand in hand. While the younger woman is intimately involved, her presence on stage is mainly that of prompter. The focus is on the older woman, an actress of intense emotions whose sorrow over the tragic ending to the love affair of her daughter (the unseen Savannah) has prompted her retreat from reality. The Edith Piaf record, the pouring of the tea, the Young Woman adorning her with several necklaces are accompanied by alternating outbursts of joyful and ruminations about Madeleine's career and the fleeting nature of love.

Chalfant is one of those actors whose presence commands your attention even if she were reading a long shopping list or, as is the case here, the text she's been given is overblown. It is Madeleine's passion and despair that is the focus of the story, the reason Duras in introducing the play obscurely refers to the title as "Savannah Bay is you." Marin Ireland's Young Woman, despite her familial connection to the story, is the less interesting and motivated of the two characters.

There's not much to say about the stagecraft except that it keeps the two women front and center. Myung Hee Cho's set, like the acting, is spare in the extreme, leaving the audience to imagine the sand and salt air of the place known as Savannah Bay. There's a table and two chairs for the women to have their tea. A few upstage steps are backed by a screen so subtly lit by Robert Wierzel that you have only the faintest suggestion of a seascape. The mounds of rocks at either end of that implied beachfront are so small that I at first mistook them for piled up plastic bags of debris.

This highly stylized approach to telling a tempestuous tale is slow and strongly perfumed with a scent of pretension. Yet, it works as an example of a director and actors closely heeding an author's very particular vision.

Savannah Bay
Marguerite Duras novel; translated by Barbara Bray
Directed by Les Waters.
Cast: Kathleen Chalfant and Marin Ireland:
Set Design: Myung Hee Cho
Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi
Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel
Sound Design: Darren L. West
Running time: 65 minutes
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th St.212/677-4210
5/29/03-6/29/03; opening 6/10/03.
Tue - Sat at 8pm; Sat at 2pm; Sun at 3pm -- $35 - $50.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on June 5th press performance performance

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