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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Countess’ stays true to nature of Victorian conflicts

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The Countess/ Ghent Playhouse

IT’S A GREAT STORY and a good play. The Countess, by Gregory Murphy reworks a Victorian scandal concerning the marriage of art critic John Ruskin, his Scottish wife, Euphemia (“the countess”), and their friend, Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais.

Gregory Murphy seems to have applied Pre-Raphaelite philosophy to playwriting: Stay true to nature. Do not embellish, or impose anything false or self-aggrandizing upon the subject. Of course, there is much art in doing that well, and Murphy does it.

Humans tend to hero-worship geniuses. The Countess is a vivid reminder that genius is seldom (never?) the full extent of any human being. Alongside a man’s extraordinary gifts (in the case of Ruskin, his deep explorations of artistic value and his rock-star public appeal) can lurk pathology, childishness, evil.

It further points up how the culture of any particular period can collude with an individual’s damaged psyche. In the Ruskin story, a rigid, male-dominated, religious Victorian ethos tolerates, and perhaps exacerbates, the critic’s illness.

At Ghent, Todd Hamilton as John Ruskin captures the damaged psyche, the convincing personal warmth that masks a disease; but he does not find Ruskin’s gravitas, his formidable intelligence and authority. It’s in the script. To honor history, as well as the play, it is the actor’s job to make audiences understand Ruskin’s achievements even as the pathology unfolds. The real Ruskin impressed, thrilled, and entranced his lecture audiences. In this production, it does not happen.

There are no other unsatisfying performances.

As the lovely “countess,” Anya Krawcheck handily delivers the young woman’s wit and charm, along with her natural dignity and wholeness. Euphemia becomes powerful in an era when women (despite Victoria) are mostly powerless. Krawcheck is powerful.

One must get past an unfortunate wig on Michael Meier as the painter; but Meier’s appealing directness as an actor creates a wonderful, guileless Millais–spoiled, self-congratulating, but basically decent and loving.

As the benighted parents of Ruskin, Lael Locke and Glenn Barrett could hardly be better. Barrett, in particular, creates a father quite capable of supplying genius genes to a flawed son.

No one connects utterly with other actors quite like Cathy Lee-Visscher. Her Lady Eastlake is tart, compassionate and convincing.

And then, there is a small servant-role played by Tracy Trimm. Trimm supplies a total person no matter how large or small his part. In number, his lines may fill a half a page; but a world of empathy emerges from two of them: “Yes mum.” His occasional glance bespeaks a servant’s grasp of employer realities.

Joanne Maurer knows how to dress her women. She understands Krawcheck (her “countess”) especially well, and offers Lee-Visscher (Lady Eastlake) brown velvet over striped silk that is period luscious. She allows Millais to look Byronic, Ruskin to be terrrrribly correct, and the elder Ruskins to wax expensive and darkly disciplined.

The two-part set was designed by Bill Camp. (A bit of incidental music to cover their changes would smooth some of their transitions and preserve the flow of the story.)

In the cottage part, keeping Millais center stage is sometimes awkward. But, sans set-flying capability or turntables, small-stage compromises occur. The other part, the Ruskin drawing room, has an icy spareness that defies the standard notion of “Victorian” but fits perfectly the mentality of John’s parents. (Shadowy rectangles on the walls are puzzling, however.)

There is a disappointing underplaying of the story’s climax, including Euphemia’s final decision and Ruskin’s breakdown. Perhaps it arises out of director Kate Gulliver’s well-founded fear of Romantic excess; but from this viewer’s seat in row three, I silently urged, “Let ‘er rip, Kate!”

Reserved seats are available at 518 392-6264 or 800 838-3006. The Countess runs through October 28.

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