"Breath of Life" at the Westport Country Playhouse 

By Tom Nissley

Jane Alexander has so many credits, on Broadway and off, and is so much admired and loved by audiences everywhere, that it’s a special honor to have her visit the Westport Playhouse for the role of Madeleine in David Hare’s “Breath of Life.” Stockard Channing is equally famous for roles on and off the Great White Way, and equally admired; she portrays the role of Frances in the two-woman show.

They are appearing together in a “let’s talk”-a-thon that might have taken place in the ladies lounge of a genteel London Club if one of them had not moved to the ultimate seashore village on the Isle of Wight. “You don’t go through here,” says Madeleine. But Frances has stopped in, and missed the last ferry, so here they are, dishing over Martin, a man who was married formally to Frances, and um... less formally... to Madeleine.

As Frances tells bits of her life with Martin, Madeleine observes “I knew about that,” and finally Frances objects, “it’s all unfair - you knew about me. I didn’t know about you.”  “But I did, you know,” she adds on. “I knew that he wasn’t doing all that much ‘civil law;’ there was a sort of code...”  Martin was a bigamist who had compared his wife - that’s Frances - to independence and real stamina and youth - what he needed from partner number 2. And the reason they’ve agreed to see each other (Madeline wouldn’t use that verb, but she hasn’t thrown Frances out into the cold) is that Martin has moved on to still more youth, with another lady love in Seattle.

So do they help each other close the wounds that are causing such inflammation? Sure enough, they do, just before the final curtain, which you may think has been slow in coming. “The problem with living in the past is that the ending is always the same,” says Madeleine, but she admits to discovering more and more about the history of archeological finds by putting together this bit and that one. “Breath of Life” is about the contradiction between these two polar stuck places - shall one compulsively dig and grieve or just bravely fare forward after an intimate construct (read partnership) has collapsed?

 The set for "Breath of Life," Madeleine's flat on the Isle of Wight, designed by Michael Yeargan, is extremely handsome, and the costumes precise. The lighting and sound are grand. Mark Lamos, the artistic director of the Playhouse, directed the production and is justly proud of having two great American actresses performing on the same stage.

“Breath of Life” was first performed in London, with Maggie Smith and Dame Judith Dench. Like this production, it filled the theater with fans of the two. Both productions may be remembered more for the great stars who appeared together than for the dialogue with which they marinated Martin, the guy who wasn’t there.

Plays through October 17        Tickets at www.westportplayhouse.org

Tom  Nissley, for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre

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