Part of McDonald's inspiration was the discovery that women were excluded from an 1874 dinner in France at which the first Impressionist exhibit was planned. The playwright's extrapolation of the events surrounding that meeting, and the state of women artists in the 19th century, provides the backdrop for a play that can be both too bald and too obscure. Staged by Synchronicity Performance Group at 7 Stages, Dream of a Common Language displays densely lyrical moments, heavy-handed debates and moments of true tenderness.
The play's setting is the French home of Victor (Andrew Davis), a painter, and Clovis (Jennifer Levison), who abandoned painting to raise a family; the play frequently wonders why women "can't have it all." The play's first half-hour offers glimpses of the dreams and memories of Clovis, who's recently suffered an accident and possibly some kind of mental breakdown.
The play's early section is also frequently given over to Dolores (Janna Zonder), who's not just nanny and housekeeper but also something of an all-around life force. She speaks enigmatically of gypsy memories from her childhood and dictates a letter to an unknown lover who may be imaginary.
To borrow a painting metaphor, the first half-hour is like watching a canvas dry, but Language becomes more engrossing in a scene where Clovis poses for her husband, and not just because she's semi-nude. In addition to illustrating the dynamics of the marriage, the scene articulates many of McDonald's themes with economy: that women are more common as models than artists; that men are taken more seriously for artistic pursuits than women for domestic ones; and more.
The play is further buoyed by the arrival of Pola (a centered, earthy Sandra Benton), a family friend and traveling naturalist, who shows up pushing one of those antique bicycles with a giant front wheel. Another frustrated female artist, Pola is especially angry over the women's exclusion from the men's meeting. The three women decide to have their own meal in the garden, commenting: "If they want to be heard, the sopranos must sing louder."
Dream of a Common Language makes many pertinent points but still can be a polemic with precious little subtlety, like the way the women artists want "a place at the table" both literally and figuratively. The characters also repeatedly return to images of trying to capture and study light, a natural interest for impressionist painters that grows tedious here. When alone, the women play children's games and reminisce about being 11 years old, and you're not sure if they're getting in touch with their creativity or simply acting childishly.
Director Michelle Pearce adds several kinds of media to the production: a memory monologue includes filmed images in the background, and when Clovis speaks of cinnamon, the scent wafts through 7 Stages' performing space, along the lines of a movie gimmick like Odorama (too bad the smell doesn't dissipate quickly). The sides of the set are lushly decorated with plants, and in one of the play's most memorable moments, Levison seems to vanish into them.
It can be hard to assess Clovis' mental state, as Levison makes her forceful and grounded in confrontational scenes, dreamily distant in others. While Victor can be insensitive to Clovis, Davis shrewdly presents him not as an egocentric artist but a decent man from a semi-enlightened time. Joe Knezevich plays another painter who carries a torch for Clovis.
Dream of a Common Language ends with an unintentionally silly squabble that validates the show's warning, "Please note there will be nudity and gun shots in this production." McDonald argues an articulate case against the ghettoization of women artists and paints a credible portrait of a strained but loving marriage, but she doesn't always reconcile these elements as dramatic action. Still, Dream of a Common Language affirms the point that in art, women can be more than subjects or objects.
Dream of a Common Language plays through Sept. 2 at 7 Stages Theatre, 1105 Euclid Ave., at 8 p.m. Wed.-Sat. and 7 p.m. Sun. $12-$15. 404-284-1511. www.mind spring.com/~synchrotheatre.
Little harsh, in'it?
Oh that's right...I DID say enjoy yourself.
Go to hell Kombo!
When will you be accepting applicants for the 2014 competition?
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