Article 82

Pretense is all in "Stillborn Lover"

"The Stillborn Lover," which is having its American premiere at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, is a compelling read. It weaves a spell on the printed page. Considering that it is the work of one of Canada's preeminent novelists, Timothy Findley, who died last June, it is not surprising that his play carries such an elegant literary tone.

But what is good literature between the covers of a book -or a script- does not always make good theatre on a stage. "The Stillborn Lover" is a perfect case in point. In the icy, self-important production it is being given at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, Findley's play rarely rises to the level of lively, let alone stimulating.

"The Stillborn Lover" focuses on a career Canadian diplomat, Harry Raymond (Richard Chamberlain), who, along with his wife, Marion (Lois Nettleton), is called back from his posting in Moscow to a safe house in Ottawa for reasons that are never made clear.

A 19-year-old male prostitute has been brutally murdered in a Moscow hotel room. The possible links between Harry and the youth, Mischa, could prove an embarrassment to Harry's closest friend, Michael Riordan (an impossibly stolid Keir Dullea), who is next in line to succeed Canada's dying prime minister and who can ill afford even the slimmest association with Harry.

"The Stillborn Lover" is less interested in the murder-mystery itself than it is with the consequences of being forced to live a secret life; when for any number of reasons one is forced to hide one's darkest, most forbidding secret in plain sight.

Even as he is being maneuvered into an impossible situation, Harry skillfully handles the relentless questioning by Royal Canadian Mounted Police Superintendent Jackman (played by Robert Emmet Lunney) and his eerily narcissistic aide Mahavolitch (Kaleo Griffith). But as the layers of deceit are stripped away, Harry and Marion, who is in the eary stages of Alzheimer's, must finally face truths they have kept hidden -from others, from each other- for so long.

Mounted on a neutral gray Japanese-style setting, "The Stillborn Lover" slogs through its nearly two and half-hour running time. Nothing is hidden here. Director Martin Rabbett throws symbolism at us relentlessly. The only meaningful symbol, it turns out, is Fabrice Krebour's murky lighting, emblematic of a production that offers little, if any, illumination.

With the notable exceptions of Nettleton, who delivers an affecting, often shattering portrayal of a woman with secrets of her own who pays a heavy price for her love for her husband, and a luminous Jennifer Van Dyck as Harry and Marion's resourceful and resilient lawyer daughter, Diana, whose devotion to her parents also costs her plenty, everyone on stage strikes attitudes, delivering their dialogue as if each word, each sentence carries great significance and meaning.

Despite moments of conviction, Chamberlain is oddly aloof and distant -passively engaged- in a performance marked chiefly by pensive gazes.

Lunney does his best to enliven things but, like so much else about "The Stillborn Lover," his characterization wallows in ambiguity.

As Riordan's wife, Juliet, Jessica Walter does her best with a role that doesn't ask very much either of her or of us.

For all its arch literary pretensions, Findley's writing often descends to cliche, to the point -particularly in a second act confrontation between Harry and Diana, and an earlier act one scene between Riordan and his wife- that you just know who is going to say what next.

The ultimate irony is that a play that ends with an assertion of life is wrapped throughout in torpor and inflated solemnity. Strip "The Stillborn Lover" of its artifice and pretension and you are left with little more than a stillborn play.

"The Stillborn Lover" contains full frontal male nudity and sexual references.

2003 Jeffrey Borak