Heavy-handed script diminishes 'Dream'

March 05, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

A couple of things strike you early on in AXIS Theatre's production of Heather McDonald's play about the birth of the Impressionist art movement, "Dream of a Common Language."

First, the lighting design, by Bob Dover, is one of the most beautiful this critic has seen at Baltimore's smaller theaters. Second, the playwright uses brush strokes that are far too bold in attempting to convey the repression of women in the late 19th century.

This contrast between an excessively overt script and a relatively restrained, subtle production characterizes much of director Chazz Rose's approach.

Restraint is also evident in designer Marshall Walker's spare set, whose three open doorways are frequently flooded with Dover's bright light.

The light is both figurative and realistic. Besides indicating the changing time of day, it represents the Impressionists' efforts to depict light in their paintings, as well as the efforts of the female Impressionists to make their male counterparts "see the light" by recognizing them as equals.

But instead of presenting themes impressionistically and allowing the audience to fill in the blanks -- as the Impressionists did with their dabs of paint -- McDonald overloads her poetic script with heavy-handed dialogue and situations.

When Clovis, a painter recovering from a nervous breakdown in which she burned her work, asks Victor, her successful artist-husband, what she'd have to do to be taken seriously as a painter, he replies, "Stop being a woman."

The action revolves around a dinner party Victor asks Clovis to prepare -- although women will be barred from the table. The only way to make the play's pro-feminist message more obvious would be to print it on placards. Nonetheless, even the supporting cast members -- particularly, Denise Gantt as Clovis' seemingly liberated friend -- manage to breathe humanity into characters that are more stereotyped than stylized.

As Clovis, Sarah Paalman finds the right blend of mental fragility and dignity to keep her character's histrionics from becoming overwrought.

Similarly, Tracy Howe's Victor leaves no doubt about his love for his wife, even though it seems stunted by the attitudes of his time.

Howe's one excess is a tendency to affect poses. Interestingly, however, his posing can be seen as a comment on Clovis' repeated objection that male models refuse to pose nude for women artists -- an objection that figures prominently in the outcome of the play. (Theatergoers should be aware that the production includes nudity.)

But monumental as Victor's eventual conversion may seem, it is fitting that the production's strongest image comes from a scene featuring only female characters. Seeing these women dance joyously in the garden while the men argue indoors says more about the positive energies of women than the play's most blatant preaching.


What: "Dream of a Common Language"

Where: AXIS Theatre, Meadow Mill, 3600 Clipper Mill Road

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; (no performance Thursday); through March 27

Tickets: $10 and $12

$ Call: (410) 243-5237

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.