“Breath of Life” - Westport Country Playhouse

By Susan Granger

Hamlet said, “The play’s the thing…,” but at David Hare’s “Breath of Life” at the Westport Country Playhouse, the performances far outshine the play, which even artistic director Mark Lamos describes as “a sketch” whose revelations, discoveries and conflicts are all seeded in past events in two sadly disillusioned, sixtysomething women’s lives.

In 2002 on the Isle of Wright off the southern coast of England, pulp novelist Frances Beale (Stockard Channing) nervously arrives at the seaside flat of Madeleine Palmer (Jane Alexander), a scholarly museum curator and lifelong political activist. Frances’ emotional state is so pathetically tentative that she refuses to remove her coat for the first few minutes. As it turns out, she’s the ex-wife of Martin, a radical lawyer who, previously, had an affair with Madeline and has now relocated to Seattle, Washington, with a young American woman, leaving Frances and their grown children. Under the pretext of writing a memoir, Frances quizzes Madeleine about her 25-year relationship with Martin, but it soon becomes obvious that she’s trying to achieve some kind of prickly closure on her own obsessive relationship with the adulterer who abandoned her.

 David Hare touches on many themes: anti-Americanism, the parasitical nature of writers, disillusionment and female independence with amusing one-liners like, “Americans – once the most powerful people on earth…now the most fearful.” Yet his inclusion of how these Brits participated in the American Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s is confusing – and discordant. So it’s not the wordy/talky narrative that soars.

Thanks to Mark Lamos, who has raised the regional theater bar, it’s the exquisite performances. Although neither character is well defined in this treacherous emotional minefield, Jane Alexander has the most brutal, cynical lines, conjuring them with a sardonic, comedic twist. In contrast, staid Stockard Channing is needier, more subdued and vulnerable. Credit Michael Yeargan for a magnificent scenic design, complemented by Martin Pakledinaz’ costumes and Robert Wierzel’s subtle lighting.

In Westport, you can see “The Breath of Life” through October 17, 2009.

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