SpeakEasy Stage Company's New England premiere of the off-Broadway stage adaptation of Todd Haynes' paean to Douglas Sirk, "Far From Heaven," is a gorgeously designed affair filled with rich, challenging compositions -- but a dreadful tendency toward some sort of hybrid between opera and musical theater.
I enjoy twelve-tone compositions and music with dissonant elements, so the complaints I've heard from others who don't like Scott Frankel's score strike me as slightly unfair (to the play, as well as to music director Steven Bergman, who allows the music, at its best, to sound magnificent). Like the play's themes, Frankel creates music that offers a shiny, melodious surface, but roils underneath with discord. This illuminates the characters' moods and the power of their fear, lust, shame, and anger, but it also goes a little too far sometimes, telegraphing to the audience not just what the characters are feeling but how we are supposed to feel, as well. In that way, the music works against the actors, who would usually have the role of layering emotional responses, motivations, and thought processes into a unified and human whole, and who are challenged here with a need to carve out their own interpretations inspired of the music's emotional dictation. They're swimming upstream, sometimes against an overpowering current.
Jennifer Ellis rises to the task wonderfully, and proves herself a fine actress and singer. Maurice Emmanuel Parent is just as good as the show's male lead. The two play Cathy -- a Connecticut housewife in the 1950s -- and Raymond, her gardener, who might work with his hands but who also enjoys putting his intelligence to use. The two carry the show, which is to be expected since the plot primarily concerns their forbidden sexual attraction. It is the 1950s, after all -- and while Cathy is white and privileged, the very definition of the homemaker in the prosperous Eisenhower era, Raymond is African-American and looked down upon for his work and even more so for his skin color. The fact that she speaks to him as a fellow human being is taken as extraordinary by the local social columnist; the fact that the two dare to discuss modern art at a gallery or enjoy lunch in the "wrong" part of town inflames the local gossips.
But still more scandal lurks below suburbia's rosy gloss. Cathy's marriage is faltering; it's something she feels and responds to, or so the costume design hints when we first see Cathy, strutting around happily with a shopping bag in her hand and clad in a scarlet coat and matching gloves. This is a woman, we feel at once, who isn't all about the goods she can afford to buy. She needs more; she needs a man that wants her. She might not even quite realize it herself, but the fact is her husband Frank (Jared Troilo) isn't interested in a family life... no more so than he's aroused by his secretary's salacious come-ons. When hubby's away at work, Cathy wears red -- in a couple of scenes, not just the one. When she dresses up for night out with Frank, though, her expectations shift. She wears a prim blue dress.
The effect is striking. Yes, it's autumn in New England; but all that red (echoed prominently in Frank's necktie) speaks of more than surface beauty and change in the air. For that, costumer Charles Schoonmaker could just as easily have chosen something in orange. Unconsciously, primally, Cathy's starting to yearn for what her husband can't give her, and while she's shocked to find him in a passionate embrace with another man one night, it's a shock that quickly wears off -- even as her friendship with Raymond warms up. (For his part, Raymond is attired in yellow and brown, colors sensible and warm, grounded and vibrant: He's not immune to passion, but he doesn't lose himself in its flames, either.) Head and heart come into conflict against a backdrop of social and sexual repression and brittle morality, and neither knows how it's all going to turn out; this is the very stuff of Sirkian melodrama.
All of this comes through in the score, as does Frank's terror and shame and the prurience with which gossip-monger Mona (Ellen Peterson) spreads every drop of juicy outrage she can wring from the interracial friendship between Cathy and Raymond. However, so much of the dialogue is sung -- when it could just as well be spoken -- that the conceit starts to get irritating. Is it all supposed to sound like a recitative?
The stage production is, necessarily, a very difference experience than Haynes' movie -- or the Douglas Sirk melodramas Haynes was saluting. What's problematic is the way the melodrama here slides into schmaltz and even, at the end, schlock. Ellis sells it all beautifully, but the play's hollow notes can't help but sound like what they are -- varnish without substance, when Richard Greenberg's book and Michael Korie's lyrics strive too hard for heartache and nobility in the face of disaster.
But the play has numerous merits, too, starting with the supporting cast. Aimee Doherty -- another of Boston's finest actors and singers -- plays Cathy's concerned friend Eleanor, who tries to be supportive but who just can't make the sort of progressive and humanistic leap that comes naturally to Cathy. Will McGarrahan appears in a couple of different, and highly contrasting roles; it's a pleasure to see him take on so successfully. Terrence O'Malley makes a splendid Stan Fine, a red-blooded male of the old school and one of Frank's colleagues at work. Tyler Lenhart also appears in contrasting roles -- as a vice cop and an assignation of Frank's that turns into something more. The cast is rounded out with, among others, Michael Levesque, Kerry A. Dowling, Jennifer Mischley, Carolyn Saxon, Rachel Gianni Tassio, and Sophia Mack, who plays Raymond's daughter Sarah. (It's upon Sarah that an especially vicious revenge falls for the social sin of interracial romance between her father and Cathy.)
Director Scott Edmiston has created a production of autumnal beauty that partakes of gloss and artifice as well as earthier elements. Eric Levenson's scenic designs lend an extra dimension to the text, with picture frames -- some small, one giant -- gliding onto the stage, where they create a sly partition that suggests a voyeuristic peek through warmly lit windows, and, later on, turn a scene set in a gallery into a comment on the period, and the people who lived in it. In still another context, those frames act as invisible class barriers that do not allow -- except ever so briefly, and at great risk -- genuine contact between the people they separate. It would be easy to overlook Karen Perlow's lighting and Noah Thomas' sound design, not because they aren't well done, but because they fit so well with the production's more attention-grabbing elements.
This is not a perfect play, but it is what it is; this production may be its perfect execution.