The North China Lover at Lookingglass Theatre Company: Theater review
Adapter-director Heidi Stillman turns Marguerite Duras's book into a gorgeously evocative memory play.
In Heidi Stillman's spare, seductive adaptation of Marguerite Duras's 1992 book (which was itself a reputedly more revealing retelling of an episode from her youth she'd previously written about in 1984's The Lover), the young Marguerite, living in what was then French colonial Indochina, takes up an affair with a wealthy Chinese playboy. The Child (Rae Gray), as she is referred to, meets the Lover (Tim Chiou) by chance on a ferry, and the air between them goes instantly electric; soon, she's sneaking away from her boarding school ever more brazenly for trysts at his bachelor's quarters.
Stillman inserts the elder Duras into the work, marvelously played by Deanna Dunagan as narrator and observer. This has the effect of making The North China Lover as evocative a stage rendering of the quality of memory as the best productions of The Glass Menagerie. Scenes and characters emerge from and recede into darkness in ways somehow both languorous and unexpected—Daniel Ostling's scenic and lighting design work together in stunning fashion.
The presence of Dunagan as the writer, both wistful and magisterial in her remembrance, helps to mitigate modern discomfort with the idea of this girl in her young teens carrying on with an older man; these were formative and happily sensual experiences, we're visually reminded. Gray nicely captures the Child's blend of adolescent bravado and real, beyond-her-years self-assurance—a product, it seems, of a difficult life at home with her distant mother (Amy J. Carle) and brothers Pierre (Walter Owen Briggs), a dangerous ne'er-do-well, and the docile Paulo (JJ Phillips), who has been the Child's previous lover. Chiou is stately, tender and demonstrates deep, frustrated sorrow when the pair's unavoidable separation comes along—the kind of flame one would absolutely keep burning in your mind. Stillman's one misstep is an ending that aims for closure rather than letting memory be enough.