Theater Review:The Breath of Life

By Cindy Cardozo

The final production of the 2009 season at the Westport Country Playhouse is Sir David Hare’s The Breath of Life. Directed by artistic director Mark Lamos, the show stars Tony Award winners Jane Alexander and Stockard Channing as English women of a certain age who, over the course of one day and night, divulge, discuss, and dissect their relationship with the man who left them both for a younger woman. This seemingly simple story is emotionally complex and delves deeply into issues of how personal histories guide our choices and how we come to terms with those choices as we reflect upon our past and move forward.

Stockard Channing plays Frances Beale, the woman who was married to the unseen Martin. Although she has found success late in life as a popular novelist, she is still obsessed with the man who got away. Frances, as played by Ms. Channing, is stuck in a world of hurt and insecurity, seemingly always on the verge of tears, as she recalls the humiliation of living with a husband who admittedly kept a mistress and who now has moved to Seattle to settle with a new, younger partner. She toys with the idea of switching from writing popular fiction to writing the real story of her failed marriage. So she visits with Madeleine Palmer, her husband’s former mistress, played by Ms. Alexander, ostensibly to research the facts for the new book and to ultimately get closure on this sad chapter of her life.

Of the two women, Madeleine seems to have led the richer life. She first met Martin when she was a teenager, visiting and protesting in America during the 60’s. She left him there after a night of passion, only to run into him again years later in England. There she began her affair with him, continuing the relationship with the same free-spirited and independent attitude of her youth. After their affair was over, Madeleine claims to have moved on, living alone now on the Isle of Wight, and enjoying her career as a museum curator.

The role of Madeleine seemed to me to be the more interesting of the two. Frances had built her life around her husband and her family, a seemingly insular existence, which made her too needy in her husband’s eyes. Madeleine on the other hand seemed to exult in her independence, and as he pointed out to Frances, it was this independence that drew Martin to her.

It also seemed to me that Madeleine was the voice of the playwright, in her lines ridiculing American diets, novels, and the sad complacency of those youthful revolutionaries of the 60’s who grew up to become the consumers of later years. Madeleine aims her sardonic wit equally at Frances’s attempts to give meaning to the banalities of her life by writing novels, and at herself for being part of the counterculture that was half a decade of protest, followed by “thirty years of acquiescence.”

Both Ms. Channing and Ms. Alexander give stellar performances. Their characters are immediately identifiable in their marked differences, yet seem to complement each other on stage – one displaying all vulnerability, the other cool detachment. It is easy to share in Frances's heartache and insecurity as she recounts the confusion, humiliation, and rows she had with her husband over his betrayal. Ms. Alexander’s Madeleine hides behind her façade of independence and self-satisfaction, which makes the rare emotional admission that she was indeed hurt by this relationship, because Frances was the one Martin chose and married, all the more stunning.

I recommend catching The Breath of Life at the Westport Country Playhouse before it closes on October 17. As a bonus, on Friday night, October 16, award-winning playwright David Hare will take part in a post-performance interview and discussion. His other plays include Amy’s View, Stuff Happens and The Vertical Hour. Screenplays include The Hours and The Reader.

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