Characters captivate, but script hurts play Theater review: Center Stage's world premiere of 'The Lover' starts nicely on a stunning set, but loose adaptation of a slow Ivan Turgenev novel develops a pace that mystifies.

February 23, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Harsh reality dawns too quickly in "The Lover," Elizabeth Egloff's loose adaptation of Ivan Turgenev's "On the Eve."

The action of the play, receiving its world premiere at Center Stage, builds steadily in the first act as it traces the growing love of a rich, aristocratic young Russian woman for her polar opposite -- a rough-edged Bulgarian revolutionary.

After intermission, however, events occur so rapidly, there's little time for character development. No explanation is given, for example, for the heroine's father suddenly forgiving his daughter, nor are we ready for the burst of maturity this previously spoiled young lady displays in the play's didactic coda.

Under Irene Lewis' careful direction, the performances are fine, as is the stunning physical production, with its two-story cut-away house designed by Christopher Barreca. But these accomplishments cannot fill in the blanks in the script, which zips through Turgenev's slow-moving 1859 novel at such a fast clip, it leaves you feeling as if you blinked and missed something -- except you didn't; it isn't there.

In Act I, we meet bright, sheltered 20-year-old Elena. Played by Kali Rocha, an actress whose large eyes take in everything around her with the eagerness of a small child, Elena is a hopeless, naive romantic. She yearns for something exciting to take her out of her boring, pampered existence.

After an acquaintance tells her about the dangerous life led by his best friend, a brave, Bulgarian freedom fighter named Insarov, Elena can't wait to meet him. When she does, she is irrepressibly drawn to him -- no matter how rude Reg Rogers' sullen Insarov is to her. And, against his revolutionary instincts, Insarov is attracted to Elena. "Why are revolutionaries always so fascinated by the bourgeoisie?" asks Elena's dismayed cousin, who is also in love with her.

All of this action proceeds at a credible pace -- credible for heated, youthful infatuation, that is. Also credible is the rage-filled reaction of Elena's father, a mean-spirited military officer played by James Noah with a heart chillier than the cold steel of his gun collection.

Elena's refined mother -- portrayed with tenderness and empathy by Patricia Hodges -- is also displeased by her daughter's secret marriage, and playwright Egloff shows us how Elena wins her devoted mother to her side. Her father's reversal, however, comes with no such explanation, and later, it is rendered all the more confusing by a strange but intriguing dream sequence in which he violently vents his wrath at his daughter.

A more serious lack is the hole between Elena and Insarov's departure for the Bulgarian front and his subsequent illness, whose unexpected outcome is thrust at us without warning in the coda.

The bulk of "The Lover" focuses on Elena and Insarov's courtship, which is understandable because Egloff has said she is especially concerned with the leap of faith true love requires.

But she short-changes characterization by not dwelling a little more on the consequences of that leap. The play should show us how Elena matures, instead of simply telling us in the end, when she spouts some of life's larger existential questions.

Turgenev called his novel "On the Eve" because it takes place on the brink of the Crimean War, a war that bears disturbing similarities to the Balkan conflict today. The relevance Egloff hammers home, however, doesn't concern details of war.

Instead, she seems to be emphasizing the obliviousness of the Moscow bourgeoisie -- typified by Elena's mother -- as a dangerous parallel to widespread American misunderstanding of the crisis in Bosnia.

And yet, it is Elena's seemingly clueless mother who wisely warns her, "Destiny is not what you thought." Similarly, the destiny of "The Lover," at this point, is not all it could be. Egloff has spun some captivating characters off the pages of Turgenev's novel, but she doesn't give us enough of a chance to get to know them.

'The Lover'

Where: Head Theater, Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. most Sundays, matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays and at 1 p.m. March 13; through March 31

Tickets: $24-$29

Call: (410) 332-0033

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