Art Copies Gay Life
(July 17, 2003)
Harry Raymond's choices in 'The Stillborn Lover' mirror those Richard Chamberlain, who plays him, had to make
Richard Chamberlain was born to play Harry Raymond. As with the conflicted hero of the late Canadian writer Timothy Findley's provocative drama "The Stillborn Lover"-now in a striking American premiere at the Berkshire Theatre Festival-the celebrated star of such diverse fare as "Dr. Kildare," "The Thorn Birds," "Wallenberg" and "Hamlet" had hidden his sexual orientation during several decades of considerable professional achievement in a largely homophobic society. Chamberlain, who recently completed "a spiritual memoir" entitled "Shattered Love," has finally declared that he is gay, and so does Harry in "Lover."
In Raymond's case, the circumstances are unbearably stressful. The Canadian ambassador to the Soviet Union during the Cold War and a career diplomat whose posts have included Italy and Egypt, Harry has been mysteriously called home from Moscow to Ottawa by Minister of External Affairs Michael Riordan, who also happens to be a close friend. Raymond and his wife Marion, in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, have been brought to what is described as a "safe house," yet there is nothing "safe" about their status.
As the investigation of the brutal murder of a young man named Misha develops, the ambassador and his wife-once seen with "blood on her dress"-become prime suspects. Misha, the first act curtain scene reveals, was Harry's lover. Marion, devoted to her husband, tellingly admits in the second act that she would be willing to do anything for him. Did either suspect kill Misha, or was the KGB the culprit?
If "The Stillborn Lover" initially appears to be a witty take on diplomatic intrigue and a mildly engrossing murder case, it proves to be a moving study of family, friendship and love. There are the strong ties of the Raymonds, at times calling to mind the family in Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance." The faltering friendship of Riordan, who plans to succeed the ailing prime minister, and his first-lady- wannabe Juliet leads to a falling out in some ways similar to that of the family in "Balance" and their longtime best friends.
Most of all there is the nobility of Harry, played with understated majesty and moving vulnerabilty by tall, well-conditioned Chamberlain. Harry, in Chamberlain's rich characterization, has all of the family man's undying love for his wife and daughter one moment and all of his passion for Russian lover Misha the next. Chamberlain is particularly riveting as he recalls his "stillborn love" for fellow activist Francis Oliver, killed at Barcelona making a stand against Spanish fascists in the 1930s.
The more that Royal Canadian policemen interrogate Raymond about the murder and his political ideology, the more he radiates integrity about not only his gayness but also his love of country. Proctor's demeaning Salem witch hunt interrogation in Arthur Miller's McCarthy era-inspired gem "The Crucible" comes to mind as Harry's patriotism and principles are called into question. Playwright Findley even alludes to American homophobia in explaining the urgency of Canadian Cold War anti-gay attitudes. Whether outlining diplomatic policy, defending family or explaining emotional cross purposes, Chamberlain is nothing short of towering as the misunderstood, often magnificent Raymond.
Martin Rabbett's direction is generally sharp, though there are some slow moments in the first act that may be more the result of the script than his staging.
Lois Nettleton is a standout among the compelling supporting players, bringing heartbreaking directness to Marion's periodic confusions and memorable feeling to her scenes with Chamberlain . Jennifer Van Dyke has all of Diana's impressive mettle, protecting her parents from the insensitivity of their persistent interrogators.
Keir Dullea captures Michael's coldhearted opportunism without turning Riordan into a one-dimensional monster. Jessica Walter makes Juliet sympathetic as she questions Michael about throwing Harry and Marion to the "dogs" of his ambitions. She also smartly gets her enthusiasm about the possibility of becoming Canada's first lady.
Robert Emmet Lunnet as Superintendent Jackman has good moments waging a war of wits with Diana. Kaleo Griffith does a mean set of pushups as exercise-driven Corporal Mahavolitch and displays strong muscle definition as Misha during Harry's remembrance of the young lover. Some theatergoers may question whether the full nudity of that scene is gratuitous even behind a scrim, but the dialogue and the situation do suggest the degree of his feeling for Oliver.
Findley frames his play and the ordeal of Harry and Marion with an effective metaphor of the Japanese game of Go, and Michael Down's vivid sets stretch from the elegant directness of the one-time Raymond home and garden in Nagasaki to a simple bedroom in Cairo. Fabrice Kebour's fine lighting charts the evolution of the Raymonds' fortunes with nuance.
The play's poetic text and a point made about Go suggest that both identity-concealing Harry and his homophobic homeland have gone wrong everywhere. By contrast, "The Stillborn Lover" proves a beautiful way of celebrating the 75th anniversity of the Berkshire Theatre Festival and a lustrous validation of Chamberlain's life, and by extension all principled human beings who have had to seek protection in one way or another from the dogs of hate.
© 2003 Jules Becker