Stoppard's `Indian Ink' is up to its difficult themes

Review: Studio Theatre's long-running production has attracted the attention of the celebrated playwright.

November 22, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

In Tom Stoppard's 1995 play "Indian Ink," the character of an Indian artist uses the term "rasa," which he defines as: "what you must feel when you see a painting, or hear music; it is the emotion which the artist must arouse in you."

"Indian Ink," receiving its East Coast premiere at Washington's Studio Theatre, is a play brimming with rasa. One indication is that the production, which opened in September and has been repeatedly extended, will be the longest-running show in the 22-year history of this small Equity theater by the time the show finally closes on Dec. 19.

Another apparent proof is that word of the production's success reached the British playwright, who unexpectedly called the theater a few weeks ago to say he would like to attend a performance early next month. Of course, only Stoppard himself will be able to definitively state whether he feels director Joy Zinoman and her large, multiracial cast have achieved rasa.

But for this critic, the production is a moving theatrical experience, doing ample justice to a play that encompasses broad themes -- from the morality of colonialism to our inability to truly understand the past -- at the same time that it relates one of the most touching tales of human relationships Stoppard has ever written.

A little like Stoppard's 1993 play "Arcadia," "Indian Ink" takes place in the near present as well as the past, in this case, England in the mid-1980s and India in 1930. The protagonist is a British poet named Flora Crewe. A free spirit who lived briefly in India, Flora is the obsession of a Southern American editor and academic named Eldon Pike, who has just published her collected poems.

As played by Isabel Keating and T.J. Edwards, Flora and Pike are polar opposites. Keating's Flora is playful, daring and full of enthusiasm for life. Edwards' skittish, ill-at-ease Pike is also an enthusiast of sorts, but his enthusiasm is for the minutiae of academic inquiry; he is a literary parasite. "God made poets and novelists," he cheerfully asserts, "so the rest of us can get published."

Now working on another posthumous volume, this time a collection of Flora's letters, Pike visits Flora's septuagenarian sister, Eleanor, at her home in England. The action cleverly alternates between past and present, and though designer Russell Metheny uses a turntable set, for most of the play we witness both time periods at once, frequently to amusing effect.

For example, in keeping with Stoppard's theme of the impossibility of grasping the past, we see Pike spewing his misinterpreted footnotes off to the side of the stage at the same time that the action we are witnessing in India contradicts his words. What Pike is trying to unravel turns out to be the relationship between Flora and an Indian artist named Nirad Das, who painted her portrait while she was in the country giving literary lectures and hoping the warm climate would prove beneficial to her failing health. The scenes between Keating's Flora and Faran Tahir's Nirad are charged with both artistic and romantic fervor. Art and romance are inseparably linked for them, and that link is the crucial clue Pike and his ilk will never discover.

On the other hand, even without knowing the details, Flora's sister Eleanor -- given a wonderfully haughty, self-assured portrayal by June Hansen -- knows and understands her late sister. Similarly, Nirad's son (Ronobir Lahiri), who pays an unexpected visit to Eleanor, may be desperate to learn more about his late father, but on a gut level, he already knows more than he realizes.

In the end, this play about art and politics is primarily a tender study of the complex workings of the human heart. Exhibiting an almost sentimental streak, Stoppard suggests that factual details may not merely be unknowable, they are of far less consequence than emotional truths. It's a conclusion that will never be acknowledged by Pike, who is a bit of a caricature -- Stoppard's put-down of those ivory tower types who explicate his every comma.

"Indian Ink" began as a 1991 radio play called "In the Native State," but Studio's production is so beautifully realized, the reworked radio script now seems ideally suited to the stage. My chief cavil is length. This story should not take three-plus hours to tell. Flora herself would be chomping at the bit at that point (for that matter, the action slows to a near standstill when neither Keating's Flora nor Hansen's Eleanor are on stage).

That aside, the production represents a monumental undertaking by the Studio Theatre -- a company that operates out of a large converted auto showroom. Two 200-seat theaters allow Studio to present two plays at once, whenever a production is extended, as every production has been since the theater moved to this space in 1987.

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