note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Caroline Burlingham Ellis
This review first appeared in The Wellesley Townsman
"The Book of Hours," a new drama by award-winning playwright Laura Harrington at the Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre, takes its title from a rare book in the library of Louvain, Belgium. The narrator identifies the book as one of the few that survived the German torching of Louvain early in WW I.
The Kaiser's troops are as ruthless as Nazis here. Determined to subdue Belgium quickly and mount an attack on France, they round up and execute men, women and children to make an example of a whole town. The mere suspicion of resistance is enough to justify annihilation.
Isabelle (Charlotte Peed) and her 15-year-old daughter, Sophie (Kelly Galvin), flee one invaded village to the apparent sanctuary of Louvain's famed library, where Isabelle's older daughter and two priests are trying are keeping a low profile and protect the library's priceless collection. Thus begins a complex tale of the struggle for morality in wartime.
Director Nora Hussey and the professional Wellesley Summer Theatre deserve accolades for their support of new plays like this and their outstanding technical skill. But the fever pitch that rarely allows a quiet moment, the sometimes unnatural speech, and the theme overload and undermine the playwright's noble attempt to plumb forgotten history for its eternal truths. The ghost of warfare yet to come hovers over every word, but for audiences, a tighter focus could mean the difference between feeling hopeless in the end or feeling inspired to act.
Harrington explains in program notes that she chose the burning of the library "as the container for the play because of its powerful layers of history and culture, language and meaning" and because of her fascination with the questions the story raises: "Resist or collaborate? Act or remain passive? Save books or save people? What does it mean to be a citizen?" Too many questions for the chosen container.
The novelist Willa Cather said that in order to create one really good story, she had to sacrifice many stories begging to be told. All the subsidiary characters in a story had stories of their own, but if she were to allow herself to pursue a byway, however intriguing, she would lose her focus.
"The Book of Hours" might have benefited from a greater emphasis on one character: Perhaps the young priest Septimus (Derek Stone Nelson), who is inspired to an act of heroism by a not entirely otherworldly love; perhaps Sophie, the play's irrepressible life force. Too many plotlines and events dangle: the longtime fears of old Albert (Ed Peed), the priest who hasn't left the library for years; the mysterious relationship of the British journalist (Alicia Kahn) with her father; the possible reason that Lucie (Melina McGrew) joined a religious order; Sophie's aborted attempt to take food to Isabelle, now a hostage; Isabelle's abnormal assumption that her husband and son are dead despite their having been fighting but a short time.
As to the language, when the situations support poetry, the elegiac speeches work well: Sophie describing the pages of burned books falling on the surrounding countryside ("They fall upon us like a benediction, like a warning") or the old priest insisting that it is "here within these pages that the souls of men reside." But too often the dialogue is unreal. Thus, in a first for mother-daughter communication, Isabelle wishes her 15-year-old a happy birthday with memories of the "blood and darkness and pain, bringing you out of my body into the world."
The actors rise to the challenge of the intense script. Kahn is especially powerful as Vera, the complex daughter of privilege who wants to be a journalistic legend, not a martyr. Galvin is convincing as the outspoken and fearless Sophie.
Theatergoers who are tired of the same old thing on local stages and want to support new-play development, fine acting, interesting history and strong production values will not be disappointed -- despite the caveats.
The sound effects alone are wonderful: ominous musical interludes, tramping of boots, threatening knocking, clanking prison doors, firing squads, burning buildings (all designed by George Cooke). Kelsey Peterson's period costumes look authentic and handsome. Ken Loewit designed the versatile, three-level set with its library stacks and office, its arches that ultimately reveal the burning town, and its rooftop shelter for carrier pigeons. The program lists no single individual behind the makeup and the astonishingly realistic bruises of torture, but the makeup also deserves kudos.
"The Book of Hour" runs through Jan. 22. The Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre is housed on the Wellesley College campus. For further information, call (781) 283-2000.