note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Helenie Thayre
"The Countess" provides an interesting perspective on the life of John Ruskin --- one of the most influential minds of the 19th century Britain --- and on his wife and family. In fact what we see and hear may come as a shock to those of us who are not up to date on recent disclosures regarding Ruskin's life. If we are still operating from snippets that we learned in school --- i.e., that Ruskin was inspiration and compass to William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelite painters and to other medievalist authors, poets and architects of the Victorian era --- then these are interesting revelations indeed. These are artists and thinkers who wished to move back from the industrial economy and return ("return") to more satisfying values of personal creation and craftsmanship. Their ideas, including William Morris' socialist activism, had a profound effect on art and political history.
There is a sub-theme to this biography as well that provides some of the play's more interesting moments. A fitful under-current of feminism gets a rise out of the audience, which laughs and applauds from the safe distance of the 21st century in solidarity with Ruskin's young wife Effie and her literate mentor Lady Eastlake, even as Ruskin and his parents are horrified by such goings on in the 19th. The Ruskins' vigorous efforts, born of a conviction that their course is the right one, are directed toward both controlling Effie and keeping up appearances. They can not conceive of nor accept any posture for a woman other than obedience.
The risk of insanity hangs heavy in the air as the net of Victorian necessity ensnares them all. One can almost feel the cords wrapping around the chest of the once joyful high-spirited young girl, crushing the breath out from her as she acquiesces to a situation she cannot seem to exit.
Ruskin's wife Effie is played to near perfection by Darra Yomtov Herman. Her red-haired, porcelain beauty brings immediately to mind the Pre-Raphaelite paintings for which the real Effie served as model. Her eyes, the turn of her head and her carriage convey warmth, vivacity, mystery, depth and vulnerability, in succession and in combination. She is the quintessential Pre-Raphaelite woman. It is surprising and delightful to see her stepping out of the canvasses before our eyes.
John Everett Millais (Christopher Thorn), the young painter who is drawn to Effie, is played with a boyish sincerity and self-absorption that provides an appealing counterpoint to Effie's complex charm.
One can only wish however that Steven Barkhimer as Ruskin could convey a small portion of the greatness which Ruskin's contemporaries saw the man. Without this the play falters badly. It would be so much more interesting to witness the struggle of a titan than that of a lightweight whose supercilious egotism tempts us to write him off early on. The predominant impression he creates is one of insensitivity, conceit and a sense of entitlement --- boorishness in short. Even if this is an accurate description of the man it seems unlikely that there was nothing more to him than that. Barkhimer's Ruskin is not touched with greatness and thus his struggles seem insignificant.