"Breath,' But No Depth

By Geary Danihy

Some plays are driven by plot, others by character, and some, alas, are hardly driven at all.

Such is the case with David Hare’s The Breath of Life, which recently opened at The Westport Country Playhouse. It is hard to think of a vehicle less suited to showcase the talents of its two stars, Jane Alexander and Stockard Channing, for not much happens – physically, psychologically or emotionally – over the course of the play’s two acts.

Set on the Isle of Wight off the coast of England, the play opens with Frances Beale (Channing), standing in the doorway of Madeleine Palmer’s home, a brightly lit expanse of bookcases, sitting area and kitchen that, as created by Michael Yeargan, embraces the entire width of the Playhouse’s stage, providing ample room for the two actresses to roam.

Roam they do not, at least not in the first scene. Director Mark Lamos has Frances enter the room and then positions her at one end of a sofa placed stage center. At the other end stands Madeleine (Alexander), and there they essentially stay, trading lines, for the entire scene. Admittedly, Hare’s dialogue does little to support movement, but surely some form of stage business or physical interaction could have been devised to break the visual monotony of this scene.

Not surprisingly, given the soporific nature of the opening scene, scene two opens with Frances having fallen asleep on the sofa. She has missed the ferry back to the mainland, which allows the two characters time to delve into their shared connection with a lawyer named Martin, a man unseen on stage who was Frances’ husband, Madeleine’s lover, and is now living in Seattle with a buxom American beauty half his age.

The motivation for Frances’ visit is not immediately apparent, nor is it ever truly revealed. Initially, it appears that she, a writer of popular novels, has come to flesh out material for a memoir she plans to write, but actually she is in search of answers to dimly formed questions about her marriage, her very traditional domestic life and, most important of all, why Martin felt the need to have an affair with Madeleine, a strong-willed woman with a penchant for causes and a Bohemian lifestyle.

Although there are moments of wit in the script, as well as snippets of Yankee-bashing that seem de rigueur for most British playwrights, the dialogue essentially consists of set-pieces designed to allow each character to reveal back-story and have her say on various matters while the other supplies fill lines so that the set-pieces do not devolve into mere monologues. For two women who have shared the love of the same man at the same time, it is all quite restrained. There are no hissy fits, no cat fights, no illuminating confrontations, no movement towards any grand revelations, no blood drawn.

Act one is essentially on idle; act two does sputter into movement for awhile, especially with Channing’s artfully delivered take on the nature of marriage and the concept of fidelity, which, in character, Alexander notes is her “best scene.” Alexander’s best moments come near the end of the play when she describes running into Martin in London years after their initial meeting in, of all places, Alabama, and the mood and setting that lead to their first tryst.

The main problem with both of these moments is that they are essentially about the individual characters, not about the relationship between the characters. Hence, there is really no dramatic movement. Both characters are arguing with themselves, not with each other. It is as if Hare just couldn’t bring himself to throw his two characters at each other and let the fur fly. Given the strength and talent Alexander and Channing bring to the stage, it would have been something to see.

Frances’ last line as she leaves for the ferry is “Thank you.” It is not evident exactly what she is thanking Madeleine for. Perhaps it is the Chinese beer and Indian take-out that Madeleine provided her overnight guest. Frances exits and Madeleine rushes after her to drive her to the ferry, and it would appear that in this final moment Hare wishes us to understand that these two women have come to some kind of understanding about themselves, each other and their relationship with Martin. Perhaps, but what that understanding might be is not apparent to the audience.

The Breath of Life runs through Saturday. Oct. 17. For tickets or more information 227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.

This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News.

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