The problem of balancing the demands of normal life, and the demands of a life of art are difficult for anyone. For a woman, with the additional demands of family and traditional gender roles, it has been even more difficult. For a woman of the nineteenth century, it was nearly impossible.
In "Dream of a Common Language" that conflict is embodied in a married couple, both of whom are painters of talent in 1874. For Victor, acceptance of his limited talent is easily achieved. For his wife, Clovis, whose talent was never really nourished, art withers and dies in the arid environment of being a dutiful wife, and uninspired mother. In its place, a kind of melancholy madness now resides, with only the smallest flame of remnant passion kept alive by other women. Dolores is her son's nanny, and a real friend. Another woman, Pola, is an artist who has actually achieved a kind of niche in the world of art, and whose adventure and courage make her a heroine to Clovis. When Victor invites a group of colleagues to dinner, to share their work and advance their careers, the women are banned from the table, and in the second act, spend their time banished to the garden, where they create their own kind of salon. It is one in which shared pleasure, desire and loss are the pigments with which they paint on an ephemeral canvas of lost opportunity.
This production is well acted, and intelligently directed by Sheila Daniels, but the script itself has fundamental problems which even this commendable performance could not overcome. To begin with, these people don't talk about anything else but their art, and society, and the compromises of their lives. Unfortunately, the dialogue is so focused and purposeful that it begins to sound like an essay, rather than natural speech. What's missing are everyday distractions and concerns, trivial interpersonal conflicts, and a sense that the day's events may be more immediate and important than a quest for immortality. Often the writing is quite beautiful, but it never quite seems fully authentic. Even more problematic, the final action of the play, meant to be both a stunning reversal and poetically shocking, is not well enough prepared by the play's world, or by the character who actually takes the action, to succeed dramatically. It is acutely disappointing when the argument that has been so compellingly made during the play is so emotionally empty when finally realized.
None of that is the result of the actor's work. As Clovis, Julie Rawley was a woman of rare intelligence and sensitivity, embalmed in her own ennui. In the first act, her psychological instability is unnerving, and her personal intensity riveting. During a scene in which she models for her husband, critical to the play, she is frozen in a posture that totally objectifies her, yet we are never more aware of her as a unique individual. It was one of the show's most powerful theatrical arguments. During the second act, empowered by her female friends, we see all the potential of the woman she was never allowed to become. This was a solid, well-crafted performance that became the axis for the entire production.
Equally impressive was the role of Victor, played by Gavin Cummins. With subtle craft, Mr. Cummins made Victor a decent man, entirely a product of his age and society, who has great difficulty understanding how his wife could feel anything lacking when she has everything she should want. Neither a callow nor insensitive man, Victor allowed us to feel his conflict and vision as a painter, as well as his conflict and lack of vision as a man. Without giving away plot, in the final scene, it is his gentleness, generosity and love that is revealed, and while it was touching, it was the wrong directorial choice for the scene. It left us sympathetic and forgiving, to say nothing of comfortable, at precisely the moment when we should have been most ill at ease, when we should have felt the greatest discomfort and humiliation in his action.
Frances Hearn, as the "successful" artist Pola, was marvelous throughout. Her naturalness and strength, as well as the clarity and focus of her performance, was convincing and technically impeccable. Her character most clearly showed us, rather than telling us, how powerful and frustrated the talented women of the day were, and how much even those who were successful had to compromise. In her, we also saw the conviction that would eventually open the arts to women, and the tremendous impact that they would have.
Mary Jane Gibson, as the nanny Dolores, was an ordinary woman, in all the remarkable uniqueness of that. In her dealings with the child, nicely performed by Casey Katims, she had all the dignity and solidity of the maternal figure, while vulnerably opening herself as a human being. In the scenes with the other women, she was clearly a follower, and no less a good and likeable person. So, too, the much more complex role of the most celebrated of the male painters, Marc, played with urbane finish by Steven Lee Schults. His was a very nice piece of work, and his impact in making us feel the peril of the final action of the play was so strong that it overwhelmed Victor's more passive intervention. Again, I think that was primarily a writing and directing problem.
Ultimately, "Dream of a Common Language" is a play so rich in ideas and possibilities that it feels like a rather better play than it really is. I think some serious strategic errors were made in the action of the play, particularly in the climax, and as a result the entirety fails. But thanks to the solid acting, and the respectful and committed direction, the evening is not without its rewards. Like those talented and ambitious women it presents, one can only long for what might have been.
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