"The Breath of Life"
Westport Country Playhouse, Westport
What to make of David Hare’s “The Breath of Life,” now at the Westport Country Playhouse? Undoubtedly director Mark Lamos (Artistic Director) has assembled a dynamite team—noted British playwright David Hare and top-notch actors Jane Alexander and Stockard Channing. The results should be fool-proof--and in fact explosive.
But unfortunately this two-character piece is not a play, as the two women rattle on about the past. Where is the drama, the intensity, the forward motion? What Hare has actually written is a thoughtful essay (and feminist statement) which examines the past of two women and the ways in which their lives intersect. Hare provides the elements of an intriguing plot—which might indeed have become a play, had he been so minded. Both women have loved the same man—one as his wife, the other as his mistress. And now he has replaced both with a much younger woman. “This one is different,” he announces, thus denigrating both women.
In the wake of this disaster, Frances, the wife (Channing) has sought out Madeleine (Alexander) in her retreat on the Isle of Wight, England. Frances is a writer and plans to turn the past into a memoir. Madeleine, who resents being exploited by a writer, is initially uncooperative, hostile. But gradually the two bond, as they recognize the true villain in the piece.
What saves the evening is not Hare’s quiet, ruminative piece, but the actors themselves. It is a joy to watch these pros, whatever material they handle. Both offer impeccable British accents, and manage to run through a gamut of emotions. Madeleine is a free spirit, a hippie from a past generation. Frances is more conventional, but at the same time ambitious, dedicated to her writing career. Though the accents and the quiet exchange make for difficult listening at times, both actors use body language to great advantage.
Yet, the best that can be said for “The Breath of Life,” its cast notwithstanding, is that it reminds one of Hare’s past victories. Better to seek out such Hare works as “Plenty” or “Stuff Happens”--or attend his film “The Hours”—or wait for his next play down the road.
-- Irene Backalenick
Oct. 7, 2009