From the novel by Marguerite Duras
Translated by Leigh Hafrey
Adapted and directed by Heidi Stillman
At Lookingglass Theater, Chicago
Mining life to create great theater
Speaking from her deathbed, Phoebe Ephron advised her daughter Nora, “Take notes.” This was consistent with what she told all four of her writer-daughters: “Everything is copy” — meaning that it is important to be aware of what is happening in your life because every relationship, every incident might result in a potential story. Writers mine their lives for material, and if the mine is rich enough and the writer is talented enough, the result can be as exquisite as North China Lover, based on the life and first love of French author Marguerite Duras, which brilliantly opens Looking Glass Theatre’s 26th season.
Certainly, Duras lived a colorful life, born in 1914 in Gia-Dinh, French Indochina (now Vietnam), where her widowed mother struggled to bring up Marguerite and her two brothers. She chronicled these early years in several books which detail the plot of the play, candidly exposing her dysfunctional family. Her mother preferred her oldest to the younger children (resulting in a vicious elder brother who tyrannized the whole family). She engaged in an incestuous relationship her younger brother, and later had a memorable love affair with the spoiled young son of a wealthy Chinese merchant.
The facts alone fail to do justice to the skill of the writer, matched by the talents of translator Leigh Hafrey, and adapter/director, ensemble member Heidi Stillman. It is the way the story is told that makes the rich dramatic experience. There are no fireworks, little more than a bare stage –a few chairs, a bed, and a few isolated groupings that signify special moments. The stark set reinforces this spare and stark story.
The play opens with a mature women sitting at a desk, center stage. There is no other scenery. This is an older, perhaps wiser, Marguerite (Deanna Dunagan) looking back at and narrating the 16th year of her life. Throughout the narration, she will be ever-present, almost ghostlike, in scenes with her earlier self.
Frail, winsome Rae Gray plays the young Marguerite who captivates (and is captivated by) the tall, handsome and sensual lover (Tim Chiou). They meet on a ferryboat and the lover offers her a ride to her boarding school in his large, chauffeured, very expensive automobile. As a wonderful example of the minimalism of the entire play, when he falls asleep in the back seat of the car, young Marguerite takes his hand in hers. Nothing is said as she brings it up to examine it more closely. It looks as if she is about to kiss it — this large hand which dwarfs her small one. She then quietly returns it to his lap. Only later do we learn that she was as fascinated with his diamond ring as with the hand itself. Not a word is said here — a wonderful example of “less is more” that applies to the entire play.
Even a nude bedroom scene is played with understatement: quietly, sensitively. Slim childlike Marguerite appears barely developed and is certainly not voluptuous. Her nudity heightens her vulnerability.
Throughout the play, there is a wonderful ambivalence about motivation. Who is this complex girl who has a troubled relationship with her mother (Amy J. Cade), an antagonistic relationship with her older brother Pierre (Walter Owen Briggs) an incestuous relationship with brother Paulo (JJ Philips), a lesbian relationship with her roommate Helene (Allison Torem), and who now enters an impossible affair with an older man from another culture?
Dunagan, as the mature, reflective author, provides wonderful delivery, which holds the whole tale together as she weaves in and out of the scenes, moving towards a final, culminating moment which springs forward in time to take us out of the past into the harsh but poignant present.
While there is no shortage of plays about star-crossed lovers — from Romeo and Juliet on — the tone and beauty of this one, make it something special.
Beverly Friend, PhD,
Lookingglass Theatre Water Tower Waterworks, 821 N. Michigan Ave at Pearson, 312-337-0665, www.lookingglasstheatre.org, Tickets. $36-$70, 7:30 Tuesdays through Sundays, 3 p.m. Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. through Nov 10, Running time 90 minutes without intermission.