DAVID Hare’s Breath of Life, now playing at the Cherry Center in Carmel, is what I think used to be known as a conversation piece.
A couple of sixty-something Englishwomen spend a day and a night talking about life with Martin. He’s the man they’ve each loved and lived with at different times and he’s recently run off to Seattle with an American woman lots younger than either of them.
Ex-wife Frances lost out because she demanded too much of a preoccupied and unresponsive Martin. Ex-mistress and one-time political activist Madeline asked nothing beyond the fleeting satisfactions of the present moment, eventually recognized her lover’s shallowness and turned down his offer of a permanent relationship. “I refuse to be defined by the man in my life,” she says.
But an unwelcome visit from Frances to Madeline’s Isle of Wight hideaway has the two of them spending the whole play doing just that.
Hare is probably best known for his sharp political pieces, notably an insightful trilogy that had some harsh things to say about the English parliament, the English judiciary and the English church in the 1990s. Breath of Life offers a few bright observations about American versus British political attitudes and the vagaries of vacationing on the Isle of Wight, but its concerns are unequivocally local, domestic and character-driven and demand two good performances. A pair of our ablest local actors deserve credit simply for taking on two hours of Hare’s probing dialogue and soliloquies. And, for attacking roles that sometimes move against the natural grain of their usual stage personalities.
As Frances, Jill Jackson is at her best when this polite suburban novelist’s repressed anger and resentment finally explode in some scary middle of the night re-enactments of past screaming matches with Martin, notably once when he was too busy repairing the plumbing to pay any attention. But Jackson is by nature such an intense and energetic performer that she is less convincing in the important early moments where Frances is all tentative, bottled-up awkwardness in face of the cooler and more self-assured Madeline.
In that role, Rosemary Luke is sensitive and perceptive but not particularly daunting. She can phrase a line in a way that deftly points out Madeline’s wry humor and reveals the academic intelligence that has made this woman an effective museum curator. But it’s harder to believe she ever had the toughness and determination of a committed 1960s freedom marcher in Alabama. She’s too correct and well groomed. It’s almost as if she can explain Madeline, where she needs to embody her.
Director Maryann Rousseau keeps her cast moving in verbal exchanges that avoid what could too easily have become long stationary face-to-face encounters. Dani Maupin’s set makes full and attractive use of the Cherry’s limited playing area. Nobody is credited with costume design, but I thought Jackson’s severe first act outfit and hairdo made her look more like a waspish spinster schoolmarm than a cozy purveyor of popular middle-class fiction.
The play continues through February 28th.