In the 1853 painting “Ophelia,” by John Everett Millais, Shakespeare’s would-be princess floats dead in her fabled glassy stream.
If Effie Ruskin, the neglected and psychologically battered wife of eminent art critic John Ruskin, had remained in her unhappy marriage--instead of finding a new life and real love with Millais--might she have landed in the drink herself, alongside Ophelia?
The year of Millais’ “Ophelia,” the Ruskins invited the anti-establishment tyro, a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, to the wilds of Scotland. That excursion is the heart of “The Countess,” Gregory Murphy’s genteel, moderately involving drama now in its West Coast debut at Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory.
It’s not so much a bodice-ripper as a bodice-wrinkler. With Yasmina Reza’s “Art” next door, in the larger theater, it’s prime time at SCR for questions of art, life and the human cost of pure, obsessive aesthetics.
Drawing from extensive correspondence, playwright Murphy has written a three-hander in spirit, though in fact it’s a seven-character piece. We’re introduced to the critic Ruskin (Jeff Sugarman) mid-lecture at London’s Royal Academy, decrying the prescribed “rules of picture-making” of the day. In Millais (Mitchell Anderson) and his brethren, Ruskin says, we have truth-seekers.
Soon enough Ruskin, Millais and Ruskin’s Scottish wife, Effie (Blake Lindsley), find themselves sharing cramped and dank quarters at Brig o’Turk, Scotland. As Millais prepares to paint Ruskin’s portrait, he turns his eye toward Effie, both as subject and as Something Else. Mutual attraction. Something’s gotta give.
“The Countess” works on two clear lines of suspense. Will Millais and Effie succumb to their passion? And what is the root of Ruskin’s wormy, controlling relationship with his wife? Using old-style delay tactics, playwright Murphy strings the audience along.
“The Countess” is getting around a lot this season, which is highly encouraging for a promising first-time playwright. Murphy has a sense of craft already. Yet his writing leaves little to chance or to ambiguity. Everything’s very on-the-nose, and when Murphy gives voice to Effie’s proto-feminist consciousness, the dialogue smacks of the late 20th century, as opposed to the mid-19th. (Effie’s confidante, Lady Eastlake, played by Svetlana Efremova, is a handy zinger-dispenser, able to leap Victorian sensibilities in a single bound.)
The SCR production features a quite-good cast, though all of the three leads could do more to play against the play’s obvious streak. Lindsley’s Effie fares best, tailoring her nonverbal glances and muffled feelings smartly for the small stage. Sugarman’s Ruskin and Anderson’s Millais offer solid portrayals of hissable arrested-development sociopath (would that more of that came through in the writing) and sensitive yet Byronic superstar, respectively.
Don Took’s dialect may come and go, but he’s wittily cranky as Mr. Ruskin, playing nicely off Lynn Milgrim’s Mrs. Ruskin. R. Louis Brahtz does well enough by the minor role of manservant Crawley, smitten with Effie. To mixed results, director Juliette Carrillo puts her cast through some slow-motion exercises--a kind of fugue state--between scenes.
Scenic designer Christopher Acebo, a major talent, here works a bit below his best, but his compact unit set (framed rather inelegantly by fragments of Millais’ portrait of Ruskin) is highlighted by an abstract image of a window at the back of the stage, bracketed by curtains. Often these turn crimson with passion courtesy of David Lee Cuthbert’s lighting.
That passion is muted, deliberately, even when Effie finally wakes up and smells the marriage. (She married Millais four months after her union to Ruskin was annulled, though the play doesn’t deal with that second chapter.) At its weakest, “The Countess” resembles the Minnie Driver film vehicle “The Governess,” which grafted a facile contemporary viewpoint onto a tale of one woman’s struggle against Victoriana. (Director Jane Campion did it far more provocatively with “The Portrait of a Lady.”) The play glides along, but when it’s over, you wonder if this particular Highlands triangle didn’t offer more than Murphy has exploited for his own tasteful purposes.
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* “The Countess,” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Fridays, 7:45 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Ends Dec. 3. $26-$47. (714) 708-5555. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
Jeff Sugarman: John Ruskin
Blake Lindsley: Effie Gray Ruskin
Mitchell Anderson: John Everett Millais
Don Took: Mr. Ruskin
Lynn Milgrim: Mrs. Ruskin
Svetlana Efremova: Lady Eastgate
R. Louis Brahtz: Crawley
Written by Gregory Murphy. Directed by Juliette Carrillo. Scenic design by Christopher Acebo. Costumes by Maggie Morgan. Lighting by David Lee Cuthbert. Composer/sound designer Christopher Webb. Production manager Tom Aberger.