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Next Stage's 'Duet for One' is a somber story with sly wit

They say if you live long enough life comes to be about loss. For Stephanie Abrahams, the virtuoso violinist in Tom Kempinski's 1980 play "Duet for One," that time has come much sooner than she ever could have expected.

The play opened Thursday night at the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater.

In a wheelchair after the onset of multiple sclerosis, Stephanie (Presila Quinby) spends most of this tight little drama playing mind games with her psychiatrist, Dr. Alfred Feldman (John Leistner). Their six therapy sessions provide the structure of the narrative.

Next Stage Rep, the Craterian's resident theater company, presents short runs of small plays at bargain rates. "Duet" fits the model nicely. All the scenes take place in the therapist's office, with its desk, leather couch, potted palms, bookshelves, art on the walls.

Stephanie glides in on her wheelchair at the top of the first scene full of swagger and wit. In fact, the play will remind some viewers of Margaret Edson's 1999 play "Wit," in which another gifted, strong-willed heroine memorably grapples with the Grim Reaper's approach.

The play is actually based on the life of Jacqueline Du Pré, the famed British cellist who died at 42 in 1987.

It will put others in mind of Kübler-Ross's five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). In the first phase Stephanie is clearly in the denial camp. Buoyed by her intelligence and talent, she imagines MS is nothing she can't handle.

Stephanie puts up a good front, wearing a blazer, fashionable earrings, a careful coif and a sardonic wit. She speaks flippantly of losing her career and talks of ambitious plans to work with advanced music students and act as a secretary to her husband, also a famous musician.

Lestner, in suit and tie, professorial glasses and Freudian beard, is mostly silent and answers her questions with other questions. She's all on the surface, he's about depths.

Quinby gives a nuanced performance as Kempinski begins to strip away Stephanie's outer layers. She struggles to maintain her composure and winds up screaming at the end of the second scene, "Everything is perfectly under control!"

She has father issues. No, not just issues, she hated him. Life with him was a battle after the death of her mother. She prides herself on having won the battle. What did she win, Feldman asks.

In the second act Stephanie's condition, and her estimate of her life, grow more dire, and her mockery gives way to anger and despair. She has a meaningless affair. Kempinski goes all tautological on us, with Feldman telling Stephanie that the meaning of life is to live and her telling him that the meaning of a meaningless sexual affair she's been having is sex.

But the issues here are big ones: life and death, pain and loss, art and meaning. Kempinski has constructed the play so that the dialectics of the therapy perhaps mirror those of drama.

There's a delicate balance in this kind of thing, and under Doug Warner's direction, Quinby and Lestner, playing off each other, have it dialed in. It's as if they're doing a dance in which first one, then the other, has to lead. It is a pleasure to watch accomplished actors find the juice in meaty roles. It's very hard to make it look this easy.

The play itself is not without its faults, the chief one being that after feeling we were about to learn Something Big we are left with no new answers after all. I suspect Empinski would say that's life.

I hope nobody avoids "Duet for One" for fear of its somber subject. There is sly wit here, and wise humor. It's about as good as anything Next Stage has done.

"Duet for Two" will play at 7:30 tonight and Saturday. Tickets are $12. Visit the box office at 16 S. Bartlett St., or call 541 779-3000. The box office opens today at 10 a.m. and Saturday at noon.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.