'Light': Illuminating the eccentric Sarah Bernhardt

THEATER

July 16, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

"Give Back the Light"

Where: Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St.

When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through July 31

Tickets: $8-$9

Call: (410) 752-1225

** 1/2 In the first five minutes of "Give Back the Light: One Day in the Life of Sarah Bernhardt," playwright Patricia Plante establishes that the great French actress was indeed eccentric.

Not only do we learn that she traveled with 40 trunks and 250 pair of shoes, but Katherine Lyons, who portrays La Bernhardt, wraps a live snake around her neck. You have to give credit to an actress who's not only willing to take a stab at portraying one of her most famous predecessors, but will also wear a snake as a necklace.

Plante weaves a number of entertaining elements into this Baltimore Playwrights Festival entry, currently at the Spotlighters under the direction of Barry Feinstein.

With a bit of artistic license, she sets her biographical play in 1896 in New York -- the first stop on an imaginary American tour. She heightens dramatic interest by presenting a romantic triangle between Bernhardt, her manager and her leading man. And she introduces a sense of danger through the theme of anti-Semitism. We hear the voices of anti-Semitic pickets outside Bernhardt's hotel, and there are repeated hints that Bernhardt's leading man shares these sentiments.

For these reasons, "Give Back the Light" (the title is a line from Racine's "Phedre," Bernhardt's signature role) proves more absorbing than "George Sand: The Lioness of Berry," the playwright's previous biographical play -- a one-woman show that has had several area productions over the past year.

Of course, gutsy as Katherine Lyons may be to impersonate Bernhardt, she has a more difficult time convincing us that she is one of the greatest performers who ever trod the boards. Part of this is due to the difference in today's acting styles. Even at the time, some critics objected to Bernhardt's flamboyant acting -- a style Lyons emphasizes.

Nor does it help that the actress is considerably younger than 52, the age Bernhardt is supposed to be in this play. However, Lyons readily convinces us of Bernhardt's artistic temperament and quirks. These are reinforced by references in the script to such practices as sleeping in a casket and maintaining a menagerie of wild animals (not unlike that of Michael Jackson).

As her leading man and paramour, Timm Munn is supposed to be more restrained, and that characteristic is reflected in his acting. However, as her manager, Jim Dockery looks dapper, but he seems a little more comfortable in his period costume than he does in the role of a jealous man who knows he will always have Bernhardt's respect, but never her love. The warmest portrayal is that of Mary Alice Feather as Bernhardt's devoted maid, a maternal figure who is also clearly a close friend.

The script contains a few anachronisms. When Bernhardt requests some music, Feather sits down at the piano and plays Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer," which was composed six years after the play takes place. And near the end, Bernhardt refers to her injured leg, although the injury, which eventually led to amputation, didn't occur until 1905.

But these are minor slips. If you think Bette Midler is the first performer to wear the title "divine" -- and if you can put up with a few histrionics -- "Give Back the Light" provides an interesting

look at the actress who owned the title first.

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