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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review

A secret is an answer waiting to be revealed, But a mystery is just that: a mystery.— Nathan

(L. to R.): Paul O'Brien (Nathan) and Debra Jo Rupp (Lilian)(Photo credit: Rick Teller)
"People disappear all the time." With that attention-getting sentence Chester Theatre Company's riveting production of Madagascar opens their 25th season with a realistic exploration into a phenomenon of human existence — The Lost. Are they taken, stolen, dead or do they just walk away? And what about those who are left to wonder about "the disappeared's" fate?

The play by J. T. Rogers is at times a mystery, a clinical examination of privilege and betrayal, a memory play, and a Greek tragedy as the three characters interweave and sometimes contradict the retelling of their haunting family drama in a series of fragmented monologues. Each character narrates the story from a different time as the audience pieces together the tidbits gleaned to form a cohesive picture – and hopes to get to the heart of what drove this family to implode.

June (Kim Stauffer) has fled a wealthy New York life style and corporate career to find work as a tour guide in Rome. She tells us the tale from the perspective of a few days prior to the denouement. Her pain and confusion are palpable as she relates the tale of her missing brother Gideon, whom she calls Paul, and the blowback effect on her life. Stauffer's confusion and deep sadness infuse her character with an almost fragile sleepwalker's hold on life.

Lillian (Debra Jo Rupp) is the brittle and exasperated mother who awaits the elusive Gideon five years previously, unaware that the long anticipated reunion has been aborted, but revealing a great deal about why she should not be surprised when it is. Lillian's narration discloses much more about the family dynamic than she herself realizes when she says, "When one is faced with the unfathomable, all one can do is speak through it." Though Rupp mines every nuance of this mother's hold on her children, her gesturing distract the audience from some of the most emotional speeches.

Nathan (Paul O'Brien) represents the present as the nice but clueless professor/outsider who has been allowed to worship at the altar of "The House of Doyle" and hungers for inclusion as only a disenfranchised acolyte can. He tries to find a logical coherence which defies all reason, the very raison d'etre , for all that comprises human behavior, while indicating that there will always be that ineffable, unknowable "Why?" O' Brien's plaintive "You ask over and over until you realize you've committed the fatal error: You've let the details of reality blind you to the truth," is his own tormented cry for clarity in this drama.

The play evolves in a "seen better days" hotel room overlooking the Spanish Steps in Rome which has been a refuge to all three characters at different times during their lives. The monologues and interplay focus on what is absent: The ever illusive, almost mythological Madagascar, the dead father/god Arthur, the missing, dead lost or runaway Paul/Gideon and the characters' grasp of truth. All three struggle with their own culpability in the events which led to this moment. Their mantra "Go forward: Don't look back," condemns them to the psychological blind spot inherent in Greek tragic figures.

June's illuminating tale of the fate which awaits a fallen vestal virgin is a graphic reminder of what special punishment awaits those who aspire to god-like status while heir to mortal imperfections. Paul/Gideon's quote to Nathan cehoes of Oedipus' agony which also serves as an undercurrent in his own search for truth and his hot house relationship with Lillian and June: "That's the danger of learning new things — If you keep on digging, one day you'll discover that something you have in your bones, that defines who you are, is a lie."

Director James Warwick in a welcome return to Chester imbues the story with a heightened sense of what is not said and who is not present. As each character replays a variation of the events, we see what they saw; we feel their inability to truly share through their words the confusion and pain that has marked, what to mere plebeians, was a preeminent academic and economic position.

Travis A. George's minimal set emphasizes the fading elegance of the fractured facade of this once rarified world, while Lara Dubin's lighting design and projections enhance and define the shifting vibrations which each revelation engenders.

J.T. Rogers has developed a strong affinity for story telling emphasizing a global viewpoint. He often uses characters with successful western lives and mores as catalysts for collision with third world realities. Gideon's flight to the Mythological Madagascar leads to a shocking encounter with the real world. In his The Overwhelming, an American family confronts the terrible truth about the Rwandan genocide. ( Curtainup's review Blood and Gifts centered on CIA intervention in the Afghan freedom fight from the Soviets' incursion in 1981 ( Curtainup's review). Roger's own motto reprises The New Testament Pontus Pilate's "What is Truth". This playwright deserves to be seen and Chester is a great place to begin.

Madagascar by J.T. Rogers
Cast: Kim Stauffer (June), Debra Jo Ruff (Lillian), Paul O'Brien (Nathan)
Set Design: Travis A. George
Lighting Design: Lara Dubin
Sound Design: Paul Shread
Stage Manager: Stage Manager
Running time: 2 hours includes 1 intermission
Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA (413)-354-7770
Preview June 25; Opening June 26; closes July 6
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at the June 26th matinee
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