Eternal Equinox

by Joyce Hokin Sachs
Directed by Kevin Cochran
Featuring Hollis McCarthy, Michael Gabriel Goodfriend, Christian Pedersen
Grove Theater Center @ 59E59, 59 East 59th Street
March 1, 2012 — March 31, 2012 [opening March 7, 2012]
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
March 6, 2012

(L-R) Christian Pedersen, Hollis McCarthy, Michael Gabriel Goodfriend. Image by Eric Johanson.

I have lived happy hours musing as an undergraduate in a library drafting papers and exams on Virginia Woolf‘s novels and reading about the lives of the members of her circle, the Bloomsbury Group. I have spent delightful evenings experiencing plays that draw from the rich raw material of the lives of these characters, such as Under the Ibex (in St. Louis in the early 1980s, with Julie Harris as artist Carrington and Leonard Frey as biographer Lytton Strachey).  Movies have also visited the thematic well of these lives,such as Carrington (1995 with Emma Thompson as Carrington, Jonathan Pryce as Strachey, Janet McTeer as Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister), and The Hours (2002, with Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf and Miranda Richardson as Vanessa).  I have wandered through rooms in London at the Courtauldt Gallery featuring the furniture, ceramics, painting and other works created by Vanessa, her lover Duncan Grant, and others in their circle.  I write this to say that I am familiar with the world in which this play takes place and familiar with theatre and cinematic storytelling drawn from it. The world is researchable and in the right dramatist’s hands, the world can be pulsing with life.  Unfortunately, this production, by poet and biographer Joyce Hokin Sachs, instructs and sometimes harangues rather than tells and feels a story. Eternal Equinox provides a picture of some lives in a set that evokes their artistry without providing a dramatic core.

The action of the play takes place in a painting studio space at a summer house shared by a constellation of Bloomsbury characters. This bohemian world (complete with familiar photographs, paintings, and stylistic touches) is evoked splendidly with set by Leonard Ogden. Fellow artists and lovers Vanessa Bell (Hollis McCarthy) and Duncan Grant (Michael Gabriel Goodfriend) are the adults in residence for the duration of the play. Vanessa is married to Clive Bell, a character we do not meet, father of several of her children. She also has a daughter by Duncan — an open secret in the Group yet not deeply discussed in the world of this play and delivered to us as a lecture point later in the proceedings. Vanessa and Duncan are stressed at curtain up for uninteresting or unexplained reasons and certainly unfelt reasons.  When adventurer George Mallory (Christian Pedersen) appears, the “because it’s there” leader of 1920s Mount Everest expeditions, tension is relieved, various past histories are revealed (though without any dramatic reason), and beautiful physiques displayed. Turns out Mallory is an old love of Vanessa’s brother Toby, of Duncan, and possibly of Vanessa herself.

Almost every possibility in this play to create genuine human interaction is handed over to exposition of past history that these characters, who have known each other for years, would certainly know about each other’s lives. The conceit wears thin, though the individual actors occasionally entrance. McCarthy’s Vanessa and Goodfriend’s Duncan prance and scowl unilaterally. We need more emotional context from the co-habitating hosts, whose relationship and its challenges are to be our primary dramatic concern. Pederson’s Mallory is consistent earnest good will, which fits the bill. And yet — the undergraduate lecture received about the backstory of these characters for two hours feels to merit instruction in return. What a play on the stage requires, other than several long looks at some nice actor physiques, is a story that feels with you, that has an arc other than a single plot point, that provides dialogue that feels in some way natural rather characters articulating details delivered from yellowed lecture notes.

© Martha Wade Steketee (March 7, 2012)

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