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Kathleen Chalfant and Marin Ireland
in Savannah Bay
(Photo © Dixie Sheridan)
Charles Aznavour once commented that the only time he saw Paris traffic brought to a complete standstill after World War II had ended was on the day Edith Piaf's funeral cortège wound through the city. When the procession reached Père Lachaise Cemetery, which is only minutes from the Belleville street where the chanteuse grew up, some 40,000 citoyens crowded in for the interment. The statistic is considered a convincing measure of the hold that Piaf had on the French because she contained in her emotive voice the nation's heart and soul.

It's possible that Marguerite Duras was one of the mourners present for the funeral; that she was enthralled by Piaf is evidenced by Savannah Bay, which begins, as Duras specifies in the first stage direction, with the Little Sparrow's recording of "Les mots d'amour." That chanson, like so many that Piaf sang seemingly from a deep, internal cavern of unresolvable anguish, is about amour fou -- i.e., love that drives the lover(s) insane. It's easy to imagine Duras, whose recurring theme was also love skewed and skewered, mesmerized by the insistent threnody and thinking to herself, "I know I can find a play somewhere in this song."

Whatever spurred Duras on, the result is a two-character, 75-minute work written in 1982 and introduced with Madeleine Renaud and Bulle Ogier as the cast. It's a tone poem that the Comédie-Française added to its roster last year, the first of Duras's theater pieces to be so recognized. And it's the source material behind a visually stunning Classic Stage Company production for which keen-eyed director Les Waters has prompted set designer Myung Hee Cho to provide a backdrop image of a body of water that changes moods as lighting designer Robert Wierzel's lights play over it.

In the spacious foreground, where only two chairs and a table with a small box on it have been placed, Kathleen Chalfant and Marin Ireland -- identified in the Playbill and in the Duras script as Madeleine (after Renaud?) and Young Woman -- appear. They are swathed in exquisite, neo-Greek gowns that Ilona Somogyi created in moments of obvious inspiration. Walking slowly, as if they were figures in one of Bill Viola's sedate videos, Chalfant and Ireland eventually sit and begin talking. Their distrait banter is initially about Piaf's song but it slowly moves, though, onto other subjects that are only vaguely sketched in -- Madeleine's now finished career as an actress, for instance. As the women intermittently resume promenading arm-in-arm about the stage's periphery and as the young woman takes a few leisurely minutes to drape expensive-looking necklaces on Madeleine, the precise nature of their continuing discourse fails to become crystal clear.

In time, however, who they are to each other and the part of their shared past that obsesses them comes into semi-focus -- or seems to. Madeleine is the mother and the young woman the daughter of someone called Savannah, whose name is the same as the Thai bay where the (in)action takes place. Although Madeleine's attention flags and although the young woman repeatedly has to cue her, the story that emerges is that Savannah, having fallen in love with a young man she met while sunning on a white rock in Savannah Bay, drowned. It was an apparent suicide occurring the day after she'd given birth to the young woman who now longs to hear about her. That demise has locked the surviving women, who also could be regarded as two parts of one conflicted self, in unending grief. They leave as they entered: together, and solemn about their destined companionship. It's as if they've merged as the ghost of the woman who links them.

Given this synopsis, there may be no doubting that Duras's play is quintessentially French with its rarefied angst about l'amour -- which can also be heard as la mort, meaning "death." In other words, the tongue forever links love and death, and no one who's thoroughly French ever seems to be able to shuck the damnable overlap. Love as loss shows up everywhere and repeatedly. With Duras loath in her theater work to commit anything that looks and sounds like realism, it surfaces here as intricate and intriguing discourse within a lovely but elusive tableau. That is, it shows up as a play that may not be for all tastes -- and that's putting it mildly.

Kathleen Chalfant in Savannah Bay
(Photo © Dixie Sheridan)
Yet done with care -- as Les Waters makes sure it is done -- Savannah Bay offers numerous graceful rewards. Chief among them is the elegiac tone of Duras's language, translated by Barbara Bray so that the words fall like tears. The meandering talk of theater and life, particularly as delivered by Chalfant, has its own mesmerizing qualities. Indeed, Chalfant's performance, which on some nights is part of a double-header (she speeds over to Minetta Lane and Talking Heads four times a week), has the same allure as the wine-red Somogyi gown she wears.

With her hair cropped short and her cheekbones exaggerated, Chalfant turns her gestures into one unbroken, flowing line. The way she tilts her head, the banked torment in her eyes, how she sets a hand flat on the table or settles sideways into a chair...everything she does transforms her into the embodiment of nobility besieged. Someone trying to determine when elegance similar to what she displays in this role was last seen on a Manhattan stage may have to go back as far as Lynn Fontanne's Claire Zachanassian in Friedrich Duerrenmatt's psychological thriller, The Visit. (The venerable actress Catherine Samie played Madeleine in the 2002 Comédie-Française production.)

Marin Ireland, who may have been cast primarily because there is enough resemblance between her and Chalfant to make believable their being grandmother and granddaughter, has a striking face; her lips alone are worth the price of admission. Sitting upright with her back straight and proud, she matches Chalfant's regal poses; copying Chalfant's other stances, as director Waters has obviously instructed her to do, she is time and again one half of a stately stage team. When she speaks, however, it's with a tone flatter than might be desired. Where Chalfant makes music, she doesn't. (Listening to Chalfant as she repeatedly must, perhaps she will eventually assimilate a tendency toward more soothing vocal tones.)

Slipped into the Savannah Bay Playbill is a short essay on Duras's art by Comédie-Française dramaturge Sabine Quiriconi; it may be more obfuscating than enlightening, however. "Her works emanate more from a mythos than a genre," Quiriconi writes, "with a resonance, an 'echo chamber,' as it were, where the work itself listens to the possibilities, and explores its theatrical calling free of the limitations imposed by some formal model."

Dear theatergoer, trust that it's not necessary to figure out what Quiriconi means in order to appreciate Duras's efforts. Duras is saying with arch beauty what another, extremely simple French song has warned us for years: The pleasure of love only lasts a moment, the pain of love endures for a lifetime.

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