One of the maddening aspects of theater is how uncertainty plays havoc with the best-laid plans. Gather the best actors and directors to work on the best scripts and you still can end up with a misfire. That's the end result of The Countess, now in production at the Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton. While all involved deliver solid professionalism, the sum of these parts is a decided disappointment.
Gregory Murphy's melodrama centers on a series of historical events from 1853 to 1854 that were the scandal of their age. The noted art critic John Ruskin, revered to this day as the paragon of the Victorian era, invites his artist protégé, young John Everett Millais, to join him and his wife Euphenia, known as Effie, on a four-month vacation in a cottage in Scotland. The sojourn begins promisingly enough. The cottage may be cramped but the fresh air and Scotland's natural beauty lift the spirits of all. Then as the weather turns sodden, so does the trio's relationship.
Ruskin is thrilled by ideals of beauty and truth but is woefully neglectful of Effie, whom he emotionally brutalizes. The kind, romantic Millais can't stand to see this and his heart goes out to Effie, whom he calls the "countess" for her beauty and grace. But to his surprise and her horror, his heart leads him to feelings much more profound and consequential than mere sympathy. The cottage becomes a prison for both while Ruskin, who observes all, dismisses it as silly infatuation. Effie struggles with her duty to her loveless marriage and a welling desire for the dashing Millais, and the mounting desperation of her dilemma builds toward an impending showdown.
This emotional struggle and its picturesque Victorian setting seem a nice fit for the Caldwell's tastes. So does the play's lively discussion of art and aesthetics. The background of the story involves the Pre-Raphaelite movement, a revolt of young English painters against the strict rules of the art establishment of their day. Millais and his comrades felt that painting before the Renaissance master Raphael had more truth and life than the idealized beauty of the later classicist era. Using medieval tales and legends as their inspiration, the Pre-Raphaelites spoke out for a revolutionary romantic tide in nineteenth-century culture. They were widely reviled until Ruskin risked his career to speak out forcefully in their defense. As a result the Pre-Raphaelites became the new rage, and Millais certainly owed his career to Ruskin's intervention.
Director Michael Hall has clearly researched his material well. His production uses projections of Millais's gorgeous paintings (several of which featured Effie as the model) and he incorporates some of these paintings' visual design into his staging. Even the show's poster and program cover have been carefully chosen: Hall uses Millais's painting Mariana, the woeful wife-heroine of Shakespeare's Measure For Measure, whose own tale parallels Effie's.
Alas, all this promise does not result in vivid drama. The principal cast, while solid, do not grab hold of their roles, and don't find the strong undercurrents of emotion that should flow underneath and around them. As Millais, Eric Sheffer Stevens certainly cuts a smart figure. With his golden curls and strong chin, he looks like Roger Daltry back in his Tommy days. But there's zero chemistry between Millais and Effie, and it's hard to care about their outlaw romance without it.
As Effie, Lanie MacEwan delivers personal anguish but plays this Victorian lady without any sense of Victorian poise. She clumps and slouches about the stage as if she were used to wearing sweatsuits, not bodices and hoop skirts. Her gestures are random; she touches others most informally and without regard to their station. All of this is not mere nitpicking. Much of Effie's dramatic dilemma stems from her personal sense of societal protocol and duty, but while the character is bound up by this, the actress seems oblivious to it.
The production's problems are not eased by Brian Quirk's take on Ruskin, who is portrayed as a mentally unstable, obtuse dolt, not the conflicted, brilliant man of power he really was. Certainly the play means to set up Ruskin as the villain, but Quirk lets us in on Ruskin's weirdness way, way too soon. Once that cat's out of the bag, there are few surprises left in store.
While the principals, all New York imports, are disappointing, the supporting cast, primarily locally based, fares better. Harriet Oser and Bob Rogerson are vivid as Ruskin's domineering, nightmarish parents. So too are Pat Nesbit as Effie's one friend and Terrell Hardcastle as an obsequious but honorable servant.
Hall's focus on historic detail hasn't been matched by similar attention to his staging. Though his direction is clean and fluid, he misses some critical emotional beats in Effie and Millais and their slow tango toward adulterous passion. And Hall tends to undercut his actors by placing them far apart from one another on Tim Bennett's large, lackluster cottage set. The idea is that the cottage is so cramped -- the play mentions this repeatedly -- that the three characters are living uncomfortably close to each other. But Bennett, who usually delivers terrific production support, seems to ignore this dramatic requirement in a rare, uninspired set design. Uninspired is also the word for Estela Vrankovich's period costumes; in the first act Effie appears in faded lilac and a mud-brown velvet shirt -- when she sits down she resembles a puddle of melting chocolate ice cream. All of this amounts to a less-than-overall effect than might be hoped for from the venerable Caldwell. But hope doesn't matter for much in the theater, and sometimes a sure thing doesn't play out that way.
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