KPBS AIRDATE: JUNE 9, 1999
Memory and nostalgia. Slippery sisters. When you try to pin them down, they dance away. And when you bring them into the light, they turn out to look not at all as you imagined them.
This is the dilemma of Lillian Garrett-Groag and her theatrical reminiscence, “The Magic Fire.” It’s a heavily autobiographical memory play, dreamy and other-worldly at times, seen through the haze of cigarette smoke and the passage of time.
The piece is set in Buenos Aires, 1952. Eva Perón is on her deathbed; she actually dies during the course of the play, though no one in this family really notices. For them, politics might as well be on another planet. In the Berg and Guarneri household, culture is all that counts. Opera and tango and tarantella. Poetry and theater. This is the ring of fire, the magic circle that, like Wagner’s mythic ring in “Die Walkure,” keeps the outside world at bay. This family, like the whole society around them, is blind to what’s going on. But gradually, over the course of the two critical months that elapse during the play, they are forced to open their eyes and see what they have so assiduously tried to shield themselves from.
Most of all, they’ve tried to shelter and protect young Lise, the alter-ego of the playwright, who, as older, twice-divorced adult, is narrating the story, introducing the characters, commenting on the action, and somehow, being privy to conversations she never actually witnessed or heard. Is it the tricks played by the mind… or the writer? “It didn’t happen like that,” Lise protests. She argues with her younger self, and even, fancifully, with the members of her family. But though she obviously adored them, she is compelled to see them for who they were, and how naive they were, eccentric, yes, but also deluded and ultimately, ineffectual. She smokes frequently, which, she now muses, she does, like her father, only when she is sad. There’s always a sadness, a yearning, in nostalgia.
At the end, Lise admits that nostalgia has a “treacherous, paralyzing pull.” While the play doesn’t quite mesmerize or magnetize us, it does draw us into its circle, into this spirited, boisterous family. “I am an immigrant in a country of immigrants,” Lise says at the outset. And to that, we can all relate.
Her forebears are half Austrian, cultured Viennese Jews who fled Hitler just as the rural Italian half of the family ran from Mussolini. What unites the two disparate halves is opera – and the unwillingness to see that they have only escaped from one hotbed of fascism to another. The realization may be monumental, but the emotional journey of the play really isn’t – not enough to warrant three acts and two intermissions.
The character of Lise, like the portrayal by Kandis Chappell, is often intrusive, sometimes annoying. She is understandably wistful, anguished, even angry at times, but she has a sameness of tone, and she never leaves us alone to make our own observations, draw our own conclusions. Garrett-Groag’s writing, however, is lyrical, lilting, poetic, fraught with all the angst and heartache that eccentric families, and bygone days, evince.
Jack O’Brien has directed impeccably, aided by a magnificent design team: the set, lighting and sound are spectacular, perfectly lush, dreamy and evocative, without descending into the maudlin. Same can be said for the performances, though some are stronger than others. The youngest and the oldest characters get the best lines. Deborah Taylor delivers hers with extreme energy, but she looks like the young woman she is, playing at a feisty 97 year-old. Sadly, although the stage is populated by women, neither the playwright nor the director makes the most of them. In fact, in addition to Judith-Marie Bergan as the highly dramatic actress-aunt, the most convincing performances are by the men, most notably, Peter Van Norden as the effusive Italian grandfather; Charles Dean as a politically astute journalist; and Charles Shaw Robinson as a next-door neighbor whose kindness to little girls belies his frightening willingness to do literally anything for his country. “The Magic Fire” is not just a small family story; it also paints a bigger picture of a whole society that was asleep, and finally woke up in terror. This cautionary tale, like the memories that engendered it, is a little melancholy, a bit disturbing, poignant, enlightening but still, somehow, not totally gratifying.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
© 1999 Patté Productions Inc.