Hartford Stage. Directed by Michael Wilson. With Estelle Parsons as Valentina Nrovka, and three supporting actors. Playing time approximately 70 minutes without intermission.
Somewhere in the publicity for this play it is described as a “chamber play.” The reference to Strindberg’s dramas in this invented sub-genre is probably not accidental: a play availing itself of limited resources, easily put together from furniture and props on hand, four actors, in costumes mostly pulled from stores. Likewise, a play of this kind aims at no large-scale effects or profound feelings or themes, but rather sets out to explore some precise, small-scale idea whose treatment can be handily accomplished in an hour or a little more. So it is with this dramatic equivalent of a Strindberg play, which sets out to explore the operation of a strong, determined human will in a situation where the whole society militates against the exercise of that will, forcing on its people a pressure to conform and live passive, assertive-less lives.
The scene is Leningrad; the year 1956; the setting, a room in the great art museum The Hermitage. Valentina Nrovka has been invited by the young curator of modern art to give an opinion on the genuineness of an alleged Matisse, a view of the bay of Nice from an open door onto a balcony. This becomes an occasion for the woman’s daughter, Sophia Yepileva, unhappily married to a rising bureaucrat, to announce she is separating from her husband, initiating divorce proceedings, and planning to marry an old, bald man, a minor sanitation bureau worker, with whom she has fallen in love. She is willing — determined, in fact, to trade the comfort and luxury of her present life for the straitened circumstances of a small room in the suburbs. She has set up the appointment in order to beg her mother to give her the money she badly needs to follow through with the divorce, and, not incidentally, to introduce her mother to her lover.
Out of these materials, perhaps not very promising, Hare has fashioned a taut drama full of irony but shying well away from pathos. The contrast between the general setting of Soviet Russia and the bourgeois avant-garde atmosphere of Paris and Nice is established early on in Valentina’s story of her escape from Russia to Paris as a young girl and aspiring painter and her study of art with Matisse himself. During this time she conceived a child with a soldier whom she knew for only three weeks. Then, for reasons best known to herself — or perhaps not even to her — she returned to Leningrad. Sophia was the child. Having inherited her mother’s artistic talent, she paints, but considers herself a mere amateur: “I want to paint only what I see.” Her mother condemns the notion as “mere photography.” We sense the late blooming of a talent, but Sophia’s longing for freedom (in a highly dubious guise) is a more generalized urge than a specifically artistic one. What emerges, finally, is that Sophia’s will is every bit as strong as her mother’s. Despite the mother’s cynicism and her scoffing condemnation both of Sophia’s plans for divorce and of the choice she has made of a new partner, it is finally clear that she loves this daughter very much and will ultimately give her the money she needs, even if it means selling her apartment. We see will triumphing, even though the triumph is almost surely to be short-lived, with adverse consequences for all concerned.
Hare has written a central role for a virtuoso performer, and Parsons was well up to the challenge. Nevertheless, I felt a curious sense of awkwardness on stage throughout the performance. It had something to do with the nature of Hare’s dialogue, which had a certain stiff formality, as if it was the result of a stilted job of translation from the Russian. Given Hare’s talent for writing lucid but fully idiomatic dialogue, I can’t help thinking the tone was intentional on his part. But it didn’t come off. There was a parallel stiltedness in the performance of Angelina Toin as Sophia. It was not that she was lacking in emotional intensity, but I felt that, in body language and in movement as well, the dis-ease she needed to play was as much actorly as characterological. Peter Maloney, whose character of Peter Linitsky, Sophia’s sixty-three-year-old lover, was more natural and well integrated. Still, overall I felt a stiffness that presumably Michael Wilson intended to register. It did register, all right, but somehow it just didn’t quite work.
I like David Hare’s plays quite a lot and have gotten used to his uniformly fine talent for bringing persons of strong will and passion into dramatically productive conflict with one another. It happens in this play too, and makes the evening worth the trouble to attend from out of town. And yet there was something missing in this attempt to make a play of such moderate, slender means do duty as one of five major offerings in the season at one of the most prominent and important regional theaters in this country. In a small, 250-seat house similar to the Donmar Warehouse this was not a perfect fit. At Hartford Stage – Parsons or no Parsons — it was just not large enough to fit well. And the house was noticeably not filled, either.