The rape of Lucrece is a true crime story, circa 500 B.C. It has been passed down through history primarily because the ravishment of Lucrece and her subsequent suicide brought down an emperor. The story came to life again some 2000 years later when Shakespeare used it as a subject. (When he writes about something, it tends to stick around for a while.) André Obey wrote his own adaptation of the tale, Le Viol de Lucrece, in 1931; Thornton Wilder translated Obey's work, and Lucrece relived her trauma on Broadway the following year in the person of Katherine Cornell. It's this version that has been revived by The Willow Cabin Theater Company under the flamboyantly visual direction of Edward Berkeley.
Willow Cabin came to prominence when its Off-Off Broadway production of three Wilder one-acts under the umbrella title Wilder, Wilder, Wilder made the leap to Broadway. Since then, the company has periodically returned to that playwright for theatrical sustenance. The problem with Lucrece is that, given our changed attitudes about the role of women in marriage and our greater understanding of the psychology of rape, the basic story of the play is not terribly relevant anymore. That story, in brief, centers on the son of a Roman emperor who rapes the much-beloved wife of one of one of his lieutenants. Shamed by the attack, she kills herself, but not before telling what happened. Lucrece's suicide causes an uproar that eventually forces justice to be done--offstage, after the play is over.
The one aspect of the story that speaks to us today is played out between the work's two narrators--one of whom relates the tale of Lucrece from an historical point of view, the other from a more sympathetic, personal perspective. The clash of these two attitudes mirrors contemporary situations wherein public figures have found their personal tragedies broadcast to the world. (This particular theme is enhanced by the casting of Linda Powell, the daughter of General Colin Powell, as Lucrece in the Willow Cabin production.)
Yet the real story of this Lucrece is how elegantly and effectively a dated work has been staged. Despite the fact that large portions of the play are essentially recited to us rather than dramatized, Berkeley's direction manages to keep us engaged. With the assistance of designer John Kasarda's provocative slab of a set, surrounded by a gauze net shimmering with shadows under Matthew McCarthy's lighting, the play suggests a dream...or something out of time. Moody and stylized, the otherworldly look of the piece pulls you into its own reality.
Then there is the acting--or, rather, the actor. Larry Gleason has been with Willow Cabin for as long as we can remember, and he is one of the American theater's best-kept secrets, standing out in each of the company's productions with his skillful versatility. This highly gifted actor, whose looks and talent bring Kevin Spacey to mind, offers such natural line readings as the second narrator in Lucrece that everything he says is fundamentally convincing. By way of contrast, Maria Radman plays the first narrator and, though she's a solid actress, she doesn't convey the drama that Gleason uncovers.
Powell brings genuine dignity and a sense of royalty to Lucrece. Robert Harte, who plays her male servant, shows real range and looks like a genuine discovery. David Paluck is impressively obsessed as Tarquin the rapist, and John Bolger gives a notably strong performance as Lucrece's stricken husband, Collatine.