Dignity opener 'Sight Unseen' sets minimalist stage

Artist, former lover are reunited in Donald Margulies' 1992 play

  • Thurston Cobb as Jonathan and Jamie Miller as Patricia in an opening scene.
Thurston Cobb as Jonathan and Jamie Miller as Patricia in an… (Bud Johnson, Baltimore…)
March 10, 2011|By Mary Johnson, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Dignity Players starts 2011 in its tradition of producing minimalist-style plays that contain a strong spiritual and social message. The theme of Dignity's sixth season is "Masked," to indicate the exploration of the many layers of human experience hidden beneath the masks we all wear.

The opener of Donald Margulies' 1992 play "Sight Unseen" sets the stage well with its evolving characters looking inward, struggling with their identities and relationships against a subtext of modern art. Margulies' characters are not particularly likable, but they are enigmatic and honest enough to hold our interest.

The central character ,Jonathan Waxman, is an American art star whose success means a profile in Vanity Fair and a list of wealthy patrons waiting to pay top price for his work sight unseen.

Before attending a London retrospective of his work, Jonathan visits his former lover, Patricia, whom he has not seen for years. Now married and living in a sparse farmhouse in Norfolk, England, with her British archaeologist husband, Nick, Patricia responded to Jonathan's note by inviting him to dinner and to spend the night despite her carrying scars from the relationship that Jonathan ended 15 years ago.

A recipient of numerous awards for her acting and directing skills, Mary Fawcett Watko directs her third show for Dignity with this production. In her director's notes, Watko says "For me, this play validates how we are influenced by others around us; choices instilled by our parents, family traditions, our own choices made — good and bad."

For this play, described by Watko as "very much an ensemble piece," she has assembled a skilled four-person cast whose members give a seamless performance, moving back and forth in time without ever losing the audience. Among the acting foursome, three are making their Dignity Players debut. Only Jeff Sprague, who plays Nick, has graced Dignity's stage before. He now appears in his third role here. Sprague has also been seen at Colonial Players and elsewhere.

Well known for his work at Colonial Players and Standing O, Thurston Cobb now appears in his first Dignity role playing Jonathan, who was born and grew up in Brooklyn. Cobb captures Jonathan's self-absorption and self-loathing, as he struggles over abandoning his religious heritage and with his insecurity at remaining an outsider despite his fame.

Cobb's Jonathan seems arrogantly unconcerned about the damage his visit may be inflicting on Patricia, while communicating his underlying respect for her as a major influence on his development as an artist.

Admired for her performances at Colonial Players, Annapolis Summer Garden and Second Star, Jamie Erin Miller now makes an unforgettable Dignity debut as Patricia. She plays an honest, hopeful, forlorn 30-something married woman in a simple existence with Nick, eager to resolve her hurt at being abandoned by Jonathan. In flashback scenes, Miller's transformation from frumpy expatriate wife into spirited college student with "too many interests to settle on a single major" is remarkable.

Another fine actor known to Bowie Community Theater and Colonial Players audiences, making her Dignity debut, is Shirley Panek, who plays Grete, the German art-critic journalist. For this role, Panek adapts a German accent that is sometimes difficult to understand, although she gives a strong performance as an enigmatic character causing Jonathan to explode in anger.

To me, this art critic's disdain for contemporary art seemed strange, and her anti-Semitic remarks offensive. Grete's relentless baiting of Jonathan about the methods he used to promote himself seemed invalid for a reputable art critic.

As Nick, Jeff Sprague gives a moving portrayal of a shy husband who adores his wife and wants to protect his home against this famous artist intruder his wife may continue to love. Sprague's scenes with Cobb increase in friction throughout. Aware of their spartan existence, Sprague's Nick proudly contrasts the honesty of their work and life together against Jonathan's world of fame that Nick sees as false. He belittles Jonathan's art, at one point announcing, "Anything created after the Renaissance is garbage."

Dignity's 2-weekend March 3-12 production of "Sight Unseen" gives audiences much to admire and ponder about enduring relationships, the price of fame, and the value of modern art, which adds up to a great start of a bright new season.

Next on tap, set for May 5-7 and 12-14 at 8 p.m. and May 8 at 3 p.m., is "Violet." The musical is set in 1964, the early days of the civil rights movement. To request a season brochure and for further information, go to dignityplayers.org.

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