Elizabeth Ashley and Jon David Casey in Zerline's Tale
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Elizabeth Ashley and Jon David Casey in Zerline's Tale
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Picture this: You're a strapping young man of indeterminate provenance who happens to have taken up lodging with a down-on-her-luck German baroness (who remains unseen) in the wake of World War I. You're drifting off on an afternoon nap when an elderly domestic bustles in to tidy up your room. Right off the bat, she starts baring family secrets -- such as the fact that the Baroness's daughter is a "bastard." And not only that, she insists on regaling you with her own sexual history in elaborate, rather graphic detail. What do you do?

If it's Elizabeth Ashley who's doing the dishing, you might be ineluctably inclined to lap every last word -- just as "The Man" (Jon David Casey) does in Hartford Stage's premiere of Zerline's Tale, Jeremy Sams' deft, 70-minute adaptation of a story drawn from Hermann Broch's 1950 novel The Guiltless. Hartford Stage's artistic director Michael Wilson, who has worked extensively with Ashley before, has pulled together all the necessary elements to provide this skilled actress with an odds-on chance to shine; and not surprisingly, Ashley makes the most of the opportunity, lending surprising depth to this admittedly slight summation of a seemingly unremarkable life suffused with desire.

True, Ashley's signature purr has been tamped down to equal parts whiskey and wheeze. But she's still got it -- that insistent sensuality that has informed her vast body of stage and film work over the past near-half-century. And when Zerline (a character whom Broch borrowed from Mozart's Don Giovanni) recounts the feints and reversals of her youthful affair with one "Herr von Juna" -- the very father of the Baroness' now-adult bastard --you'll be rapt.

We've met Machiavellian maids before, from Sheridan's saucy wenches to Lorca's lugubrious oracles, but Zerline is in a class apart -- not only smarter than her supposed betters, but more passionate and proud. Among the more indelible images she imparts is a moment when she's sharing Juna's carriage for a teasing tryst and dares him to kiss her raw and reddened "washerwoman's hands." Instead, his lips graze her wrists, an affront for which he'll ultimately pay.

Not only does Zerline turn out to have a moral code easily as twisted as that of the class-bisected society that bred her, she appears to entertain a gender-reversed perspective on the madonna/whore dichotomy. The Baroness' cuckolded husband, who groped her only once is the man she ends up exalting as "everything." Still, the sexual transports that Juna subjected her to remain vivid in memory -- and para-orgasmic in the retelling. As Zerline recounts this part of her story, lighting designer Howell Binkley brings up a carmine glow along the edges of Alexander Dodge's hitherto properly fusty set to reveal a gallery of harts' heads, mute witness to passion's predictable but ever vivid dance.