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There is a lovely, theatrical moment in Savannah Bay
when Young Woman (Marin Ireland) takes the older Madeleine (Cathleen Chalfont) by the hand
and leads her in a promenade around the bare stage, lit in soft blue. They traverse a
gentle space and time, maybe on sanitarium grounds. There is another such moment when
Young Woman comes to stand close behind Madeleine, saying nothing, hands at her side, but
clearly offering energy, affection, reassurance, all the human things that transfer by
nearness and touch. These were eloquent blocking decisions by the director, Les Waters.
Both women wear silky, red gowns (by Ilona Somogyi) that emphasize the
loveliness and vulnerability of their bodies, not at all sexualized by looks or gestures.
They may be grandmother and granddaughter, the younger trying to coax the elder into
remembering her identity--"I don't know who I am or where"-- and of a dead
Savannah, who seems to have been the missing daughter and mother linking these two women.
Or maybe Young Woman is young Madeleine before she lost her memory, since they repeat each
other's meager clues.
So they talk, at first in elegiac parallel reminiscences of the dead
woman's final moments on a rocky shore; they may or may not be telling created memories,
so to speak, or incitements to memory, or pure imagination; no touchstones are offered to
a reality beyond their speech. (Chalfont's well-trained voice is a pleasure to
Then about two thirds of the way into their meeting, Young Woman draws
her elder into a conversational style somewhat more animated and a good deal more credible
to the audience. They sit at a bare round table, the sole stage furniture, and take tea,
maybe as they do every afternoon. Unexpectedly, randomly, a few pieces of the woman's
mystery fall into place: "Yes, I was an actress and played all over the world."
Yet, even when the odd lines make sense, they don't add up. The language is opaque,
nothing like as poetic as intended to be.
Explaining Savannah Bay in the playbill, the writer Marguerite
Duras says: "You don't know who you are, who you were, you know you have played, you
don't know what you played, what you are playing, you know you have to play, you don't
know what, you play....Nor can you remember which of your children are alive or dead. You
have forgotten everything except Savannah, Savannah Bay... Savannah Bay is you."
Maybe the piece wants to be Beckett, though it knows not his wit and
consequence: I can't go on. I'll go on.' Thinking of Beckett, nothing happens on
this stage either. Even when, occasionally, talk achieves momentary continuity or
cohesion, no good comes of it. It seems that a play about Madeleine's experience, whatever
it was, never got written as planned. Madeleine says, "We keep from dying out of
politeness," which seems to be a theater-on-theater comment--you know, the actor dies
when the curtain falls, that sort of thing, which Pirandello did supremely well eighty-odd
Would this have worked better in the original French? Doubtful.
Regrettably, subject and talk come off as pretentious hooey.
New York, June 8,
- Nina DaVinci Nichols