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A CurtainUp BerkshiresBerkshire Review

The Stillborn Lover

In Japan, there is an ancient game called Go. Its ritual moves are played on a squared-off board. Every move is made with a round smooth stone. Once the stones have been set in place, they cannot be withdrawn. Their positions are locked, irrevocable. Like the moves and gestures we make with out lives -- Marian

The game of Go is the major symbol in the late Timothy Findley's symbol-laden Stillborn Lover. The play lives up to its billing as a combination mystery, love story and morality play but truth in advertising does not insure an exhilarating experience. The mystery hardly has you at the edge of your seat. The love story is overwhelmed by ambiguity (a flaw that applies to most of the characterizations) and detour issues like Alzheimer's. And, as a morality play, this breaks little new ground.

Like another play reviewed this week, Mark St. Germain's highly entertaining Ears On a Beatle (the review), this is a factionalized version of an actual event. As St. Germain was inspired by the now declassified FBI files on the Beatles star John Lennon, Findley jumpstarted his story with the case of Canadian ambassador to Moscow John Watkins who in 1955 was accused of homosexuality. The play exacerbates the drama of the Watkins affair with a murder that may have KBG or CIA links and by having the fictional Mrs. Watkins, now Marion Raymond, descend ever more deeply into the nether world of Alzheimer's. Unfortunately, even with Richard Chamberlain as the beleaguered diplomat to lend buzz to this American premiere (it opened in Ontario in 1993) and the excellent Lois Nettleton as his confused wife, as well as a physically interesting production, The Stillborn Lover lacks the vigor needed to make it come fully and satisfyingly to life.

Everything starts out promisingly enough with the prelude in which lighting designer Fabrice Kebour bathes the all gray Japanese set in squares illustrating the voice-over of the above quoted Go game definition. The multiple platforms and sliding scrim walls suit the Cold War aura of grimness and the neutrality and self-containment of the main players in this game. The abstract staging also works well to accommodate the numerous scenes where the downstage action and dialogue are mirrored by a silent scene further upstage and also to suggest the various locations: Nagasaki where Harry and Marion Raymond's (Chamberlain and Nettleton) daughter Diana (Jennifer Van Dyck) was conceived as a sort of atonement for that awful and unnecessary second bombing, the bedroom and balcony of a Cairo posting, and several rooms in the home of their friends Juliet and Michael Riordan (Jessica Walter and Keir Dullea).

The main drama plays out in a "Safe House" in Ottowa to which Raymond, his wife and his lawyer-daughter Diana (Jennifer Van Dyck) have been summoned for what turns out to be an investigation into the death of a young male prostitute in a Moscow hotel room. The presence of the Riordans, he an ambassador risen to the post of Minister of External Affairs and now poised to step into the shoes of the dying Prime Minister, is at first reassuring. But ambition and friendship don't always mix and it will come as no surprise that as the Raymonds must face the tumbling of their surface facade of a happy family, the Riordans must decide whether to stand by their friends or grab the gold ring that will elevate them to the highest seat of power. In fact Michael has already put his stone into the Go square since it is to him that the two Royal Canadian investigators who round out the cast of characters must report. Those investigators, Superintendent Jackman (Robert Emmet Lunney) and Corporal Mahavolitch (Kaleo Griffth), lurk in the background even when not actively front and center. Their very presence turns the term "safe house" into an oxymoron.

Jennifer Van Dyck & Kaleo Griffith
Jennifer Van Dyck & Kaleo Griffith (Photo: Kevin Sprague)
What is surprising is that the charismatic Chamberlain never quite lives up to the applause that greets his appearance (I'm told this happened in the performances before the one I attended). Granted he has some impassioned moments with his wife and daughter but those moments tend to drown in over-cooked, predictable dialogue -- not to mention all those too obvious metaphors. For the most part he looks more like a pained bystander than a man in deep crisis. Nettleson is much more emotionally engaged but she too has to cope with overblown dialogue. Jessica Walter as the wannabe First Lady gets some nice ironic lines, but not enough to give her part the build-up it could use. KeirDullea underplays the smarmy Minister to the point of making almost no impression at all.

The Stillborn Lover is most lively and its dialogue most incisive in the scenes between the Javert-like Jackman and the Raymonds' daughter Diana. Happily, Robert Emmet Lunney and Jennifer Van Dyck make the most of their opportunities though their characters, like everyone else's, remain rather opaque. Near the end Chamberlain has a fine moment when he accuses Jackman of trying to entrap him by using his aide-de-camp as a male prostitute. With a disdainful look at the hunk-y Mahavolitch, he lands the play's one funny line: "Tell him to put his clothes on. I'm not interested in young men wearing purple running shorts." The hunk's baring all for a frontal and rear view gives Berkshire Theatre Festival the distinction of nudity on both its stages. In this case, nudity doesn't do what a little more irony and humor might have done to save the Stillborn Lover from being a theatrical still birth.

Playwright: Timothy Findley
Directed by Martin Rabbett
Cast: Starring Richard Chambelain with Keir Dullea, Kaleo Griffith, Robert Lemmet Lunney, Lois Nettleton, Jennifer Van Dyck and Jessica Walter.
Set Design: Michael Downs
Costume Design: David Murin
Lighting Design: Fabrice Kebour
Sound Design: Jason Tratta
The Berkshire Theatre Festival's Main Stage Route 7 Stockbridge 413-298-5576
7/08/03-7/26/03; opening 7/09/03
Performances are Monday through Friday at 8 PM and Thursday and Saturday matineses at 2 PM -- $33-$60
Review by Elyse Sommer based on 7/10/03 perfromance
deb and harry's wonderful things -  crafts .  yarns

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