David Hare’s The Breath of Life at Westport Country Playhouse

David Begelman

Unlike some detractors of David Hare’s 2002 drama The Breath of Life,this reviewer found the Westport Country Playhouse’s current production of the play an absorbing and riveting experience—precisely because of the interplay of ideas that charged the relationship between its two characters. Some critical naysayers were convinced the play about two women getting on in years is on the talky and insubstantial side. In their opinion, The Breath of Life lacks punch, being a “vague and arid exercise masquerading as a play.” Have they missed the boat entirely, because of some quixotic notion of what “punch” is supposed to amount to?

This reviewer demurs; the script is a polished one, enhanced by the finished portrayals of its two characters by two outstanding actresses. Under the direction of the recently appointed artistic director of the playhouse, Mark Lamos, both performers dug in—British accents and all—to provide not an “insubstantial,” but gripping and satisfying evening in the theater.

What accounts for the stark division of opinion about this elegant play? One can only surmise the reason. For starters, maybe it has something to do with the deconstruction of vehicles without the requisite “punch”—meaning drama so immersed in ramrod thematic material like sexual inversion, dissolving identities, or revolutionary and millenarian aspiration that anything else is made to pale by invidious comparison. God forbid we are lugged into seeing a play about people who grapple with real life themes, rather than their being iconically drawn characters in extravagant scenarios!

Quality performances in the two leading roles are not new to Hare’s drama. In England, where the show made a killing at the box office, it opened with those incomparable troupers, Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. In the Westport production, Jane Alexander and Stockard Channing take on the roles of Madeleine and Frances. For my money, casting doesn’t get much better than this.

At first blush, The Breath of Life seems to be a story about how two women describe the arc of their past experiences with one man, Martin, a barrister. He does not appear in the play, nor is the drama simply a tale of how two characters lose their emotional moorings without the central man in their life. As a foil against which both women take stock of themselves, he is actually a negligible element in what they are all about. It is their self-discovery kindled by their brief relationship in later life that is at the heart of the two-act play.

Madeleine is a retired museum curator of Islamic art who lives on the Isle of Wight (an exotic location off Great Britain familiar to Americans through passing mention in the Beatles’ ditty, When I’m Sixty-Four). Frances Beale, a successful novelist comes to visit her in order to get material for a new book she assures the other woman is meant to be a “memoir,” rather than a novel. Madeleine, distrusting fiction temperamentally, is hesitant to collaborate. Her complaint about fiction is basically “That it isn’t true.”

The insights the two characters develop and share about the past not only draw them closer together, they prove how much further along they are in getting past a cipher like Martin. Madeleine, dismissive of his infidelities, quips: “That’s usually the form God takes when he presents Himself to middle-age lawyers.” Her considered opinion in retrospect is: “Obviously, my dear, we both sold ourselves short.”

In the course of the brief contact between the two women, playwright Hare explores more themes than you’d imagine the play’s premise might be able to handle. These include the value of fiction, the importance of civic commitment, sexuality, love and disillusionment, domesticity, art, literature, protest movements in America, and the meaning of one’s life. They are all examined with the humor, style, and the kind of pungent dialogue we have become accustomed to in the Hare canon.

Director Lamos has his two actresses circling each other in both electric and humorous ways. They make the most of Michael Yeargan’s set with eight tall windows facing the sea. Jane Alexander has a commanding presence on stage, while her character’s acerbic wit makes up the lion’s share of the play’s funny lines. Stockard Channing radiates a more vulnerable Frances who seeks to resolve the painful aftermath of not only being the abandoned spouse, but coming to terms with this has meant for her own identity. Both actresses received a well-deserved standing ovation for their performances on opening night.

The Breath of Life opened on September 29 and closes on October 12, 2009 at the Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport, CT. The performance schedule is Tuesdays at 8 PM, Wednesdays at 2 and 8 PM, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 4 and 8 PM, and Sundays at 3 PM. Tickets range from $35 to $55 and can be purchased by calling the box office at 203. 227. 4177 or online at www.westportplayhouse.org


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