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THEATER REVIEW : ‘LETTERS’ IS COMPELLING, HAUNTING

It is a poet’s business to go through life with all the nerve endings open, sensing, tasting, magnifying. But there are occupational hazards involved for those who do not learn to manage the input, shaping and forming it onto the page without losing the inner balance that makes this osmotic intake bearable.

Sylvia Plath found, lost, found again and ultimately lost this delicate equilibrium, taking her own life in 1963 at the age of 30, at the very moment her work had achieved a feverish, creative high.

“Letters Home” is playwright Rose Leiman Goldemberg’s adaptation of a biography by Plath’s mother, Aurelia Schober Plath (“Letters Home--Sylvia Plath”). Through letters to her mother and brother, and through her journal entries, this woman whose senses magnified the barest flicker of life takes form--in this case, on the stage of the Bowery Theater, in a sensitive interpretation by actress Robyn Hunt.

Directed by Steve Pearson and co-starring Marce Grahame as Plath’s mother, “Letters Home” is a surprisingly accessible play.

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Plath’s words, spoken on a nearly bare set designed by Pearson and Esperanza Gallardo, under stark portrait lighting by J.A. Roth, mingle with her mother’s retelling of them. The two actresses rarely speak directly to one another. Rather, they perform a kind of verbal dance through the intimate pages of joys, dreams and depressions that Plath copiously penned to her family, as if her poems and her novel, “The Bell Jar,” were not enough outlet for the avalanche of experience sifting through her consciousness.

Slyvia Plath’s strengths as a poet are unquestionable. And “Letters Home” rides on this wave of carefully rendered language. When the young writer describes a Smith College weekend that culminated in a summer dance under Japanese lanterns, it becomes a glorious journey, a glistening droplet of time preserved and replayed for us in full splendor by Plath’s power to feel and describe each breath as if it were the first ever taken on this planet.

Without this ability, her poems would never have reached us. We would not share the painful, slow awareness that she must make herself whole without the man whom she married, devoted herself to, bore children by and ultimately lost (English poet Ted Hughes).

If only she had developed a stronger psychic buffer--just a little more distance from the peaks and valleys. It might have saved her life.

Hunt is riveting, capturing Plath’s buoyancy and fears with equal control. Her blue eyes seem to glow or cloud, depending on the character’s state of mind.

There is nothing on stage to guide Hunt’s movements but pools of light, a straight-backed chair and the mother figure, seated beside a wooden writing desk cluttered with “Sivvie’s” letters. But Hunt clearly evokes Plath’s word images, making it seem as if we’ve been to the university, to London, to the crawl space under the downstairs bedroom where she made her first suicide attempt at 17, and to the institutional hallways that lead to the shock treatment room.

Grahame is believable enough as Plath’s mother, in her prim navy suit and pearls (designed by Busara McLeod), that even a fumbled line or two among the pages of difficult script seem to be in character, products of overstrained emotion.

Pearson has helped his actresses find the depth, the interest, in Goldemberg’s play. It is a small but significant work, a showcase for Hunt’s almost eerie ability to portray women haunted by unstable states of mind. It is good theater.

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Lawrence Czoka’s original and borrowed musical compositions add texture to the piece. They are particularly welcome in the second act, when the events leading to Plath’s suicidal decision begin to build. Czoka’s music expands the room, lending needed perspective.

“Letters Home” is surprisingly filled with messages for everyone. It does much more than reveal a single woman’s tragic life, but it also inspires the urge to know more about its subject. Both play and poet linger stubbornly in mind.

“LETTERS HOME” By Rose Leiman Goldemberg. Directed by Steve Pearson. Stage manager, Kathy Hansen. Set design by Pearson, Esperanza Gallardo. Costumes by Busara McLeod. Lighting by J.A. Roth. Music composition and sound design by Lawrence Czoka. With Robyn Hunt and Marce Grahame. Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., through June 22 at the Bowery Theatre, 480 Elm St., San Diego.


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