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Angelica Torn in Edge
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
There is perhaps no American poet whose life has been the subject of as much debate as Sylvia Plath. The poet, who killed herself in 1963 after writing a final group of searing poems, many of which encapsulate frustration at single motherhood, is a martyr-heroine for some fans and critics and a frustrating enigma for others. Plath's relationship with poet Ted Hughes is the subject of various works of fiction, biography, poetry, and an upcoming movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow.

What is real about Plath will always be debated. What audiences are experiencing at performances of Edge, the new one-woman play written by Plath biographer Paul Alexander, is a display of remarkable acting by Angelica Torn. Now at the DR2 theater Off-Broadway, Alexander's play offers a lacerating portrait of Plath's marriage and a highly informed, if clearly partisan, view of her difficulties in her final days.

The show begins on Plath's very last day, and Torn's sardonic wit and controlled, fast-paced delivery intrigue us even as we begin to feel uneasy. We are in the presence of an unhinged psychology, one that is both brilliant and, evidently, too fragile to sustain itself. The echo chamber of Plath's early-adult life, constructed to perfectly reflect her parents' reproachful voices, leaves the talented young woman traumatized and suicidal as a Smith College coed. Torn recreates this episode effortlessly, and it makes her performance all the more devastating.

In one scene after another, Torn conjures Plath at various ages; in one particularly riveting sequence, she manages to portray both the young protagonist and her therapist during a painful session with uncanny facility. That the traumas of Plath's early life, including her father's death of diabetes when she was eight years old, do not render her unable to pursue a path of great accomplishment -- including a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge -- is testimony to the woman's strength and talent. The best evidence of Torn's acting ability and the skill of Alexander as a director of his own material is the fact that the audience isn't too frightened to return following the intermission after learning of Plath's struggles, including electroshock therapy for her depression that was administered without anesthetic. Of course, many in attendance know of the poet's difficult life and most will get the title's reference to a poem included in Ariel, her final collection, which begins with the lines: "The woman is perfected. Her dead / Body wears the smile of accomplishment."

Alexander gives lots of stage time to Plath's obsession with Hughes's violent, menacing aspect and her erotic obsession with his personal and physical resemblance to her own father. The playwright does not let his subject off the hook in terms of responsibility for the emotional labyrinth into which she and her husband walked. Simultaneously, it should be acknowledged that Alexander's biography of Plath, Rough Magic, is widely seen in the scholarly community as among the most partisan works of its kind. Other biographers have had to obtain permission from Hughes himself to quote Plath's work, to which he retained rights after her death because Plath had refused to grant a divorce; Alexander eschewed such a deal with Hughes in return for the freedom to say what he pleased about their lives.

Now, five years after Hughes' death, we are about to see the academic battle over Plath enter the popular consciousness through this play, next year's movie, and other projects to come. Edge is a wonderful place to begin, although it does not provide (as Alexander's biography did not) much insight into Plath's work or Hughes's. Instead, we must be content with Plath's assertion that Hughes was threatened by her talent -- which, she states flatly, was superior to his. It's clear that Plath's perfectionism, absorbed from her parents, never leaves her. And while Plath's psychological and perhaps biochemical susceptibility to depression are obvious here, Hughes is finally the one blamed by the character Plath and her biographer for her death. His cruelty, according to Alexander's presentation, is beyond doubt and the character's description of it is breathtaking, especially as acted by Torn.

The show's uncredited set is minimal, and the sound and lighting design -- by Dennis Michael Keefe and Joe Levasseur, respectively -- serve the play well without becoming obtrusive. Plath and Hughes academics may perhaps find Edge frustrating; but anyone else interested in the subject matter, and those who enjoy terrific performances, should check out this edgy, searing production.

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