Review: “The North China Lover”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Lookingglass Theatre Company, Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave.
When: through Nov. 10
Tickets: $36-$70
Phone: 312-337-0665 

Might as well admit it: I don’t really “get” Marguerite Duras. Maybe that’s why I can appreciate the care and complexity of Lookingglass Theatre Company’s world premiere stage version of “The North China Lover,” but it didn’t move me until the very end.

Adapted and directed by Heidi Stillman from Duras’ novel, translated by Leigh Hafrey, the intermissionless show focuses on an adolescent love affair the author repeatedly revisited in her work. M (Deanna Dunagan), presumably an older Duras, is the narrator and a constant, almost ghostly presence, so her comments and reflections simultaneously color the events and distance us from them. 

The setting is the French Quarter of Southern Indochina (now Vietnam) in the 1930s, and The Child (Rae Gray), an impoverished 15- or 16-year old Duras, first meets The Lover (Tim Chiou), a rich 27-year-old Chinese playboy, on the ferry on her way to boarding school. Subsequent scenes detail the months of their affair from an initial ride in his limo through assignations at his bachelor apartment to his revelation of his father’s disapproval, his meeting with her mother and brothers, the pair’s parting, and her return with her family to France.
 
In between, we see The Child interact with The Mother (Amy J. Carle), who admits to loving her eldest brother, Pierre (Walter Owen Briggs), the best, no doubt contributing to his savage cruelty to his siblings. She also has an incestuous relationship with the strange younger brother, Paolo (JJ Phillips), and tries to protect him from Pierre, as he does her from repeated beatings. And she shares a little, though not much, of her experience with The Lover with her more naïve school friend, Helene (Allison Torem).

Stillman shrouds the proceedings in near blackness on a proscenium-style stage, highlighting scenic and lighting designer Daniel Ostling’s minimalist props — a bed, a doorway, etc. — and moody lighting. Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes stick to the bare necessities, too, with The Child’s simple pale-green shift, funky brown hat and rhinestone-studded pumps as her main outfit throughout, contrasting with The Lover’s silk suit and satin robe. Barely visible in a corner, Betti Xiang’s adds to the atmosphere by playing haunting music on the erhu.

Everything in the love scenes screams sensuality — but I kept finding it undercut by something else. Though one can explain it as M’s artistic vision of her past self, Gray comes across as too old for The Child, and her performance has a dispassionate quality, as if she’s not totally involved in what’s happening. This is accentuated by the fact that Torem’s animated Helene is letter-perfect age-appropriate. The only time Gray seems fully in the moment is when she’s dancing with Phillips’ quiet but affecting Paolo.

Tall and handsome, Chiou suits the Lover to a T, displaying more emotion at times than The Child, yet remaining somewhat mysterious. As The Mother, a disadvantaged victim of circumstances, Carle is interesting but hard to read, while Briggs’ Pierre is practically bursting with rage, until a final insecure child’s cry for help. The key to the evening is Dunagan’s complicated but deliberately not especially likable M. Often wry and thoughtful, never overly nostalgic or sentimental, she maintains a committed but cool perspective, retelling the tale without passing judgment. She’s always the writer, shaping her account to suit herself, until the final moments when the past meets the present and she’s overwhelmed by her feelings — as was I.