Stages of Grief

Of all the techniques used to teach acting, Sanford Meisner developed one of the most famous, practical, and, curiously enough, the simplest. Meisner and his Neighborhood Playhouse cohorts (count David Mamet among their graduates) believed that the key to the craft was found simply in the art of listening and answering: The actor should take his attention off his own words and focus it instead on the words of his fellow performer(s). The method works well because it serves a dual purpose. By maintaining a constant connection between members of a scene, theater conversations sound more akin to real-life exchanges than stilted speeches. Even more essential, Meisner's trick removed self-consciousness and stage fright, since the actor absorbs himself in the nuances and actions of everyone on-stage except himself, thereby reacting honestly.

If there's one problem that seems to crop up persistently in South Florida theater, it's the actors' lack of acquaintance with this technique. So many local thespians come across as false because they're not really listening to what the other actors are saying and the way they're saying it. Anyone who has witnessed such meaningless bantering should take a drive up to The Drama Center in Deerfield Beach to behold an example of listening and answering at its finest: the masterpiece Duet For One.

Did I say masterpiece? I'm not the first. When the play opened in London in 1980, it immediately won the Critics Award for "Best New Play." Similar accolades follow wherever it goes. The virtually identical production now at The Drama Center enjoyed a limited run at The Public Theater in Fort Lauderdale last year, and critics/audiences all acknowledged the high quality.

Perfection describes nearly every aspect of this carefully crafted, dramatically rich tale of a 33-year-old violin virtuoso who contracts multiple sclerosis. An amazing feat, since all the action takes place only between the stricken young woman, Stephanie Abrahams, and Dr. Feldman, a London psychiatrist. Encouraged to visit Feldman by her husband David -- a successful composer -- the musician tries to impress the doctor with her resolve and enthusiasm, insisting that she's fine and that she can cope. But Feldman is quick to note that the lady doth protest too much, and what's even more alarming, throughout their first session, she never even mentions the loss of her musical coordination. When he directly confronts her about suicidal thoughts, the denial mechanisms crack. The theater then explodes with Stephanie's descent into hell, and her subsequent slow climb back to life.

The play covers an eight-week period in therapy, poses no easy solutions, and falls into nary a cliche. Playwright Tom Kempinski develops real characters rather than stereotypes, individuals who, though bright, can resort to childish games when despair overtakes them. His dialogue manages to sound both authentic and poetic, despite Stephanie's numerous monologues. When she describes making love to David the first night they met, she compares the sex to Beethoven: "Just like nature...lots of heavy chords and plenty of climaxes." Later she patiently explains to Feldman that man conceived of God because of what he heard in music.

With taste and humility, director Tyson Stephenson stages economically but effectively, allowing actors and script, not continuous movement, to provide the intensity. Also noteworthy is a gorgeous, woody set design by Jim Dahn, which puts observers in the mood even before the piece begins.

As topnotch as the text and direction is, however, no one and nothing eclipses the two lead actors, Peter Haig and Carolyn Hurlburt (Mrs. Tyson Stephenson). Haig, in the lesser role, injects humanity and personality into Feldman, difficult to accomplish when most of the time he's assigned to the listening post. But listen he does, so well that the connection between the two performers is also palpable. Hurlburt energetically meets the awesome task assigned to her by the playwright -- to move realistically through the many stages of grief, from denial to self-destruction, and at the same time embody the side effects of the various antidepressant drugs prescribed by Feldman.

In one pivotal scene, Feldman advises Stephanie to take her attention off herself and help others, to stop listening to the dark voices within her own mind and listen again to the world. Here she will find solace -- just as many of Andrew's and AIDS victims conquer personal grief by lending others a hand. It's a striking parallel to the on-stage action, in which Hurlburt listening to Haig and Haig to Hurlburt produces uplifting theater.

David Spangler, new artistic director of The Drama Center, deserves the ultimate credit. Bringing his coast-to-coast theatrical experience to our area, Spangler has now staged three engaging shows in a row: The Cover of Life, Six Women With Brain Death, and this jewel. Since assuming command, he has not faltered, either in hiring or selection of material. Several smaller theaters in the area would be well served by listening, very carefully, to empresarios like Spangler.

DUET FOR ONE by Tom Kempinski, directed by Tyson Stephenson; with Peter Haig and Carolyn Hurlburt. At The Drama Center, 2345 W. Hillsboro Blvd, Deerfield Beach through October 18th. Performances Wednesday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m.; Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets cost $15. Call 570-9115.

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