Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Lunar Eclipse: Facing the Darkness

Reed Birney and Karen Allen in Lunar Eclipse. (Photo: Maggie Hall)

The new play by Donald Margulies, whose wide range of works includes Sight Unseen, The Model Apartment, The Country House, The Loman Family Picnic and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner with Friends, is Lunar Eclipse, currently in production at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass. It’s a two-hander about an aging Midwestern farm couple, George (Reed Birney) and Em (Karen Allen), who sit together in a field and watch a lunar eclipse while they review their life together. As a workout for a pair of performers, it’s skillful – Margulies knows how to shape scenes for actors, and over the years I’ve seen some gifted ones go at his dialogue with considerable success. What I’ve never been convinced of is his ability to get far beneath the surface of a dramatic scenario, though some of his plays (Time Stands Still, Collected Stories) are more compelling than others. Lunar Eclipse is banal, but banality isn’t the worst crime in the American theatre, and the honesty with which he’s drawn his two characters holds you, even when the shifting of topics seems to click in like an old clock rounding the hour and the offstage voice signaling the phases of the eclipse underscores the conversational chapters. (I would have cut the voice-over.)

There are two sections in this plain-spoken text where the banality acquires genuine power. One is George’s confession that he woke up early that morning in the dark, uncertain of where he was and overwhelmed with the sudden thought that everything he’d been taught about the ascension of the general movement of the human impulse toward good and away from evil was dead wrong – that in truth we’ve lost the battle. We hear these disheartened words filtered through a consciousness that has always been optimistic, and for audiences it may call up the most unsettling moments of their own pre-dawn musings. The other is a long, turbulent exchange about George and Em’s adopted son Tim, an addict who died in his thirties. Throughout it Em is the voice of maternal sympathy, while George admits that he always struggled to love his thorny, ill-at-ease son, an unrelenting user who brought nothing but heartache and whose death was a relief. Perhaps what carries this scene is Reed Birney’s warmth and affability, the sense he gives us that this is a very good man laying bare the darkness he’s been pushing against since he became a father – even before Tim got into trouble. (He’s never had a hard time loving his daughter, whom he and Em also adopted.)

I’m always curious about a new Margulies play, but what drew me to the show at Shakespeare & Company was my fondness for the two actors. They both give sensitive, unstressed performances, and Birney’s is remarkable. They even pull off the epilogue – a flashback to their first date, as high schoolers in the same field witnessing another eclipse – without affectation. And in the small, comfy Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre they find an easy intimacy that pulls us toward them immediately and keeps us close for ninety-five minutes. For once the now-obligatory standing ovation felt like the natural conclusion to the afternoon.

 Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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