A delightful stage treat awaits at the Circle Theater for those who, like me, may never have heard of Win Wells' 1984 drama “Gertrude Stein and a Companion.”
The full-length duet piece showcases veteran actresses Barb Ross as Stein and Laura Marr as her longtime lover, Alice B. Toklas, looking back over their life together at 27 Rue de Fleurus.
Their Paris home became the salon of premier artists such as Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Henri Matisse and many more. And their walls became filled with an incredible collection of early 20th century modernist paintings.
The happy pairing of Ross and Marr is more than enough to recommend the show — they're terrific individually and together — but sure-handed direction by Daena Schweiger and Wells' exceptional script make this a gem of the rapidly waning stage season.
The play opens on July 27, 1946, the day Stein has died of intestinal cancer. Her ghost sits in a regal chair in their apartment, waiting for Alice.
“Dead is dead,” Gertrude tells us, “but dead is not done.”
How right she is. Soon Alice is able to sense Gertrude's presence, and the two are off and running in a reverie of vignettes bouncing from 1907 to 1967. The love continues even after Stein has died.
Part of the brilliance of Wells' witty and emotionally affecting play, which won first prize at the Edinburgh Festival in 1984, is that he blends Stein's actual words with his own skillful imitation of her writing style.
The play's point is that Stein, noted for her art collection as well as her groundbreaking nonlinear writing, may have been the famous one. But she'd have never gotten there without Alice pushing her writing into publication and managing every detail of her life.
If the script can be believed, and Marr makes you believe, Alice had a keen eye, a sharp mind and a cutting tongue. Arching an eyebrow, she sums up her contempt for Hemingway, observing that his books “were all the same, just as his wives were all the same.”
With big round eyes and deadpan delivery, Marr has you roaring with laughter one minute, then — at the end of the first act — reduced to a puddle as she writes “Dear Pablo” to tell him of Gertrude's death.
Ross plays Stein as a cheerful bulldozer who adores Toklas, even as she can't help taking her for granted. “You see, when you are a genius, you are privileged, and nobody can do anything for you but take care of you,” she explains. Another big laugh. But Ross makes sure you see Stein's vulnerability as much as her strength.
The two take on cameo roles as well, switching a hat or a prop to become socialite Mabel Dodge, Stein's caustic brother Leo, a sneering reporter or an artistic great. It's a tribute to both Ross and Marr that there's no trouble understanding who's who or when's when as we bounce back and forth through the decades.
A clever device puts a rear-projection screen in a gilded center-stage frame, and the paintings referenced in the script change in and out. Empty frames on the walls symbolize the famous art collection that could never be literally reproduced.
“Gertrude Stein and a Companion” again proves you don't need elaborate production values or a big budget to stage memorable theater. A great script, two talented actresses and a skilled director are more than enough here.
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