If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan


You’re familiar, no doubt, with the ultimate praise one can give to an actor:  “I could watch her read the telephone book, and it would be interesting!”  Would that I had a copy of the yellow pages to toss to Jane Alexander and Stockard Channing presently working very hard in the current Westport Country Playhouse production of David Hare’s “The Breath of Life”.  The British playwright has done far better work and these actors have been seen under far better conditions.  They deserve combat pay in Westport.

Mr. Hare is the author of such notable plays as “Plenty”, “A Map of the World” and “Stuff Happens” as well as the Oscar nominated screenplays for “The Hours” and “The Reader”. 

“The Breath of Life”, written in 2002, is a dreary, talky duologue between a pair of older women who meet after both have left Martin, the one man who nearly defined their lives.  Frances (Ms. Channing) is a successful author who married and had children with Martin until he found a younger woman.  Madeline (Ms. Alexander) is a retired curator who met Martin in the 1960s when they marched for civil rights and enjoyed a long, tempestuous affair.  When Frances arrives at Madeleine’s door, she has come for that old saw: “closure”.  They’ve met only once previously, but Frances still feels Madeleine can shed some light on her predicament.

Not much happens in “The Breath of Life” even though Mr. Hare’s script keeps promising revelations that never come.  The women spend a day and a night together each taking turns, sharing stories, trying to figure out where they’ve been and where their lives are going now that Martin has moved on.  While the play is in the hands of accomplished and attractive performers, there is only so much they can do with such dry and tedious material.  Never have I wished for the blare of a cell phone to break the monotony of an evening in a theatre.

Through all of this, however, the actors perform valiantly.  Alexander delivers her long monologues with grace and insight holding back tears until the very end, refusing to sentimentalize her character.  Channing is very much her equal with comic timing that remains impeccable.  When asked how she finds her first cigarette since the late 1970s, she deadpans, “Life changing”. 

Mark Lamos directs with his customary taste and restraint but Michael Yeargan’s expansive setting, while perfectly detailed, is a tad high end for a woman who doesn’t seem to have much of an income.  Robert Wierzel’s soft and reflective lighting works especially well in the evening sequences.  The stars, no doubt, are the reason this play will draw an audience as it did in London when Judi Dench and Maggie Smith took on the roles.  That may be enough for some theatergoers.  For others, the intermission may tempt many to get a breath of air… and head for their cars.

 “The Breath of Life” continues at the Westport Country Playhouse through ale Rep through October 17th. For further information and ticket reservations, call the theatre box office at 203.227.4177 or visit: www.westportplayhouse.org.

Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company.  He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com.  His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.
This review first appeared in Elm City Newspapers on October 7, 2009

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