There’s no resisting Lookingglass’ alluring ‘Lover’
By HEDY WEISS Theater Critic October 6, 2013 4:14PM
Rae Gray (from left), Deanna Dunagan and Tim Chiou in "North China Lover" at Lookingglass Theatre.
‘THE NORTH CHINA LOVER’
When: Through Nov. 10
Where: Lookingglass Theatre at Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan
Tickets : $36-$70
Info: (312) 337-0665; lookingglasstheatre.org
Run time: 95 minutes, with no intermission
Updated: April 14, 2014 4:49PM
Marguerite Duras, the French writer and filmmaker, was born in 1914, in what we now call Saigon. She was a child of the French colonial world of Indochina, as well as of a troubled family in which her mother, a teacher, barely eked out a living for her and her two brothers after the departure of their father.
At the age of 16 (she may have been even younger), the precocious, alienated Duras met a handsome, wealthy, 27-year-old Chinese man while taking the ferry to her school. Their love affair would obsess her for the remainder of her long, eventful life, finding its way into several quasi-autobiographical novels, and then into the 1992 French film “The Lover.”
Now, in “The North China Lover,” an altogether exquisite Lookingglass Theatre premiere, adapter-director Heidi Stillman has worked a small miracle of artistic transubstantiation, creating a play that magically combines the meditative poetry of the page, the dreamy luminosity of cinema and the vivid reality of the stage. This is a real beauty of a show — erotic, exotic, psychologically probing and full of meticulously detailed performances. Intended for mature audiences (it contains an exceptionally lovely nude scene), it spins a story that has as much to do with memory, loss, money, exile, racism and cruelty as it does with love.
Leading us back in time is the figure of Duras, the writer “M,” played by Tony Award-winning actress Deanna Dunagan, in a sly, rueful, characteristically understated turn that is at once detached and tinged with pain.
Rae Gray, with her slender figure, porcelain skin, doll-like face and intriguingly flat voice, embodies the writer’s adolescent incarnation, “The Child.” Notably dressed by costume designer Ana Kuzmanic in a pale green shift and boyish felt hat, Gray deftly captures both the innocence and preternatural worldliness of her character.
In the crucial role of “The Lover,” an opium-smoking playboy who has never had to work but is tied to Chinese tradition, there is Tim Chiou. He is remarkable. Beyond the fact of his physical beauty and grace, he suggests a man in whom both guile and guilt, the forbidden and the required, create a fascinating tension.
But every character in this complex, disturbing story is expertly limned. Amy J. Carle is remarkable as “The Mother” — a woman of total awareness and immense charm, who clearly understands the tragedy of her own life, and her children’s, yet somehow maintains an open heart even when faced with humiliation. And as Helene, The Child’s adoring school friend, Allison Torem is wholly beguiling as the nerdy girl who can only dream of what her more daring (and more damaged) pal is actually living out.
Walter Owen Briggs is ideal as Pierre, The Child’s sadistic older brother and mama’s boy, with JJ Phillips as Paulo, his terrified younger brother, and Tracy Walsh as the Woman in Red, the lonely, promiscuous wife of a local French official.
Daniel Ostling, that genius of a set and lighting designer, has created what is essentially a series of black boxes (with a revolve stage for the all-important Chinese bed that exerts such a powerful effect), so the whole story unspools as if it were a movie. Equally brilliant is the playing of Betti Xiang, a virtuoso on the erhu (the two-stringed Chinese fiddle), whose music magically conjures all the intoxicating sights, sounds and alluring “foreignness” of this work’s haunting time and place.