A comforting sense of intimacy fills the small room below Central Presbyterian Church. Upstairs, people will come to affirm what they believe. Downstairs, Circle Theatre Artistic Director Doug Marr keeps believing that people will be interested in what he offers: good theatre performed with intelligence and polish.
At 8-person dinner tables, you may commune with other people while you could partake of well-prepared food, successfully suggesting the comfort of home cooking. It’s as if you’re dropping in on friendly neighbors while informality warms the room.
On stage talented performers make this more than a casual visit. They are Barb Ross and Laura Marr*, convincingly delineating two famed women, in Gertrude Stein and a Companion by Win Wells. Ross appears as Stein, Marr as her partner/companion Alice B. Toklas. .
Wells’ play is predicated on audiences knowing who these literary celebrities were, wanting to know more. It dwells on biography and concerns their daily lives together. In real life these women had lively intellectual discussions with each other and with other others; nonetheless no sense of their thought-provoking ideas emerges; and they lived through the looming dangers of World War II’s German occupation.
Stein and Toklas had a romantic, loving relationship, in this personification clearly displayed in affectionate words and attitudes. But the production skirts a significant part of that by barely showing physical intimacy. They touch once. The staging seems too careful an avoidance of that truth. Director Daena Schweiger should have tried a little tenderness. Women do get weary.
The 90 or so intermissioned minutes tell the story within a sitting room while time laps back and forth in words, by the way, apparently derived from Stein’s own writings, letters, and interviews.
Time into time after time beyond time, even when their bodies have dissolved into dust, the script explores how they came together, how they lived and how they separated when death did them part. Their life in France intersected with Ernest Hemingway and painter Pablo Picasso whose names get dropped occasionally.
The public images of both women suggested that Stein was a tough cookie and Toklas was angel cake. Wells writes about them in a different light, painting a portrait of two lively, happy people. Or so it would seem, especially from how Ross and Marr portray them.
Ross makes Stein dynamic, self-assured yet jolly while Marr gives Toklas sweet, almost girlish, innocent warmth. And Schweiger has allowed them plenty of space to ponder and to react. Although words were central to the lovers’ personalities, these two don’t rush to say what they have to say. Good.
Schweiger and David Sindelar have enhanced the production with well-chosen period-appropriate music and projections of Picasso paintings, with a Hemingway photo looming once.
Beforehand, out there at the tables, audiences can sup on Stephanie Anderson’s expertly prepared evocations of a characteristic multi-course French dinner. Not obligatory. But served up at fast food shop prices.
FYI: Playwright Wells wrote this play in 1987 when he was 52. It won first prize at the Edinburgh Festival that year. In earlier days he toured the U.S as a beat poet. And he wrote screenplays including The Call of the Wild (1972), starring Charlton Heston and The Greek Tycoon (1978) starring Anthony Quinn and Jacqueline Bisset. 1981 saw Wells’ play Lorca winning eight Los Angeles Critics’ Awards.
*Sunday, February 16th Laura Marr won an Omaha Entertainment & Arts Award as Best Actress (Play).
Her husband knows what he’s doing.
Gertrude Stein and Companion continues through February 23 at Circle Theatre in Central Presbyterian Church, 726 S. 55th Street, Omaha. 7 p.m. dinner and show $16-$25. 8 p.m. show only $10-$15. More info at circletheatreomaha.org or 402. 553.4715.