Jane Alexander, Stockard Channing
Currently playing at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut, David Hare’s 2002 play The Breath of Life, which, in its original West End production starred Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, is strikingly different from much of Hare’s other recent work.
Unlike Bush-era dramas Stuff Happens and The Vertical Hour, Hare’s solo show Berlin/Wall, or British political yarn Gethsemane, politics remain in the background, allowing a compelling, textured story to emerge from the deeply nuanced performances of this production’s two leading actresses, stage vets Jane Alexander and Stockard Channing.
The play – which is almost existential in its themes – revolves around a popular novelist, Frances, who’s come to the isolated home of Madeleine, an Islamic art scholar who happens to also be her ex-husband’s ex-lover. Over the course of a long evening, the two recall their past with Martin, the man in question, who has since moved on to a younger wife in Seattle but was once the object of both their affections.
Frances, who played house most of her life, has only recently come into success writing fiction for the masses, having only several years back found out about Madeleine, whose relationship with Martin went all the way back to the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama, when the two shared an intense attraction that fizzled quickly only to reignite fifteen years later. The reason Frances has made the trek is quickly revealed: she wants to write a memoir about their fragmented triangle.
Living secluded on the Isle of Wight, a place where she claims people “crawl south and expire,” Madeleine provides a flinty foil for Frances’s more reminiscent personality.
“You’ve always had a problem with fiction,” Frances accuses. Ultimately the two engage in an argument over whether fiction reduces or expands the scope of life by giving an author license to describe real-life situations. Madeleine feels that fiction reduces the richness of people to mere scraps. Frances argues that reading provides an escape and allows readers to imagine they’re someone else.
Hare’s play, in its portrayal of two splintered women searching for closure, is ultimately one of his most affecting works. Enhanced by the performance of Jane Alexander, whose stiff-upper-lip demeanor perfectly sets off Stockard Channing’s more impulsive nature, the play soars into the stratosphere, passing its slight 105 minute running time without a single watch-check-worthy moment.
Matthew Yeargan’s impressive, homey set, full of books and dominated by an oriental rug, only adds to the sense of accumulating clutter in the two women’s lives, a back row of towering windows seeming to reveal the blue-skied world of which both could be a part if freed from their emotional attachments.
As directed by Mark Lamos, these two stage legends manage to dissolve happily into their roles as bickering wife and lover, leaving an audience basking in the play’s titular breath of life as it experiences the ups and downs of two deeply-etched characters who have not quite learned the trick, as David Hare explains it, of letting go of time.