Play hits the hard issues Tough love: Inspired by two characters in Turgenev, playwright Elizabeth Egloff asks the big moral questions in 'The Lover,' premiering at Center Stage.

February 11, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

TC Elizabeth Egloff had been living with Elena Nikolayevna Stahov and Dmitri Insarov for nearly two years before she made them the centerpiece of her play "The Lover."

Inspired by these central characters in Ivan Turgenev's 1859 novel "On the Eve," Egloff's play will receive its world premiere at Center Stage beginning Friday.

Elena and Dmitri came into Egloff's life in 1994 when the feature film division of PBS' "American Playhouse" series hired her to write a screenplay based on a novel by William Trevor called "Reading Turgenev."

"All I knew about Turgenev was Dostoevski hated him," says Egloff (pronounced "EGG-lov"). Although she hadn't read any Turgenev before the "American Playhouse" assignment, she immersed herself in the 19th-century Russian writer's fiction as preparation for the screenplay.

And, despite Dostoevski's opinion, she says, "I was struck by Turgenev's sense of metaphor, his sense of nature and his sense of melancholy as a delicious experience." She was also struck by the young lovers in "On the Eve," who, she explains, "filter in and out of 'Reading Turgenev,' " a screenplay that remains unproduced due to American Playhouse's loss of PBS funding.

In "On the Eve," Elena, the pampered daughter of Russian aristocrats, gives up everything to marry Dmitri, a Bulgarian revolutionary. "The force of her youth is relentless and ruthless," the 42-year-old playwright explains over coffee in one of Center Stage's rehearsal halls. "She will fulfill herself at the expense of her mother, her friends, even her own safety."

Elena's determination, and the tough issues that love leads this sheltered young woman to confront, were among "The Lover's" attractions for Center Stage artistic director Irene Lewis, who is directing the production.

"Elena asks rather pithy questions about existence in general and about our purpose, and I think that part of the play appeals to me -- those bigger moral questions," Lewis says. "To find a contemporary writer who's writing about those larger issues is really also what drew me to the script."

In addition, the setting of the "The Lover," on the eve of the Crimean War, turned out to be remarkably topical in light of the current conflict in the Balkans. "Some of the speeches seem directly from the newspaper," Lewis says. "It's uncanny. I'm not making an effort to say, 'See how relevant this is.' I think it works better with its own echoes. It says it itself."

Egloff doesn't research a play until she has finished her first draft. For "The Lover," most of her research involved studying "the roots of the Balkan conflict," she says. "The hardest part was figuring out how a Bulgarian would feel visiting Moscow at the start of the Crimean War. The writing of the play was very much informed by the experience of Chechnya and Vietnam -- that sense of being an outsider in a country pretending to be your friend."

Similar attitudes

After completing her research, she concluded, "In the world of this play, the attitudes of 19th-century Muscovites are strikingly similar to our own.

"People in this play are full of misinformation," she explains. "The war seems confusing and tragic, and you can't get a handle on what's going on there, and in some terribly tragic sense, it's very romantic."

Writing "The Lover," however, reinforced her support of the United States' role in Bosnia. "I absolutely think we should be there. We do seem to be making a big difference in terms of providing focus to the Bosnian conflict, and now the Bosnian peace," she says.

Other adaptations

"The Lover" isn't Egloff's only dramatic adaptation. Her version of Euripides' "Phaedra" was produced off-Broadway last season, and her interest in the great Russian writers has also been manifest in an adaptation of Dostoevski's "The Devils," as well as a pair of one-act plays she adapted from short stories by Gogol.

Despite her penchant for adaptations, Egloff makes no claims of loyalty to her sources. "I can't take on an adaptation unless I feel an inherent respect for the writer," she says. "But that said, I drop everything that doesn't click for me." In the case of "The Lover," time periods and settings have been compressed, some characters have been combined and others eliminated.

Although three of her five full-length scripts are adaptations, Egloff is best-known for an original work, "The Swan," which premiered at the Actors Theatre of Louisville's prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays in 1990. The play tells the story of a trumpeter swan that crashes into a Nebraska living room and proceeds to molt into a man and win the heart of a disenchanted nurse.

Dissimilar as this may sound to "The Lover," the two plays share a number of themes that recur in Egloff's work. Chief among these are the notions of unlikely or unattainable love, the chance for freedom that this love offers to the female protagonist, and the strength of purpose and self-knowledge she gains through love.

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