BWW Review: Wife, Mistress Reflect on the Past in THE BREATH OF LIFE at Portland Center Stage
This is a challenging review to write because the play I saw on opening night of David Hare's THE BREATH OF LIFE was likely very different from the play that will hit the stage tonight and for the rest of the run at Portland Center Stage. This is because half of the original two-person cast had to leave the production a week before the planned opening. Though PCS did push back opening night, Julia Brothers, who stepped in, had only been in rehearsals for a week and was (understandably) still on book. My guess is that when Brothers gets up to speed, which she might be already, the play will go through a transformation. This is all just to say -- take my review with a grain of salt.
David Hare's THE BREATH OF LIFE tells the story of a meeting between Frances Beale (played by Brothers), the ex-wife of hotshot lawyer Martin, and Madeleine Palmer (played by Gretchen Corbett), Martin's ex-mistress. Martin himself never makes an appearance, having left England for Seattle and a much younger woman.
Both Frances and Madeleine are now in their 60s. In the playbill from the original production in 2002, Hare wrote of the women's stage in life: "You can no longer call it middle age, and you certainly can't call it old age. It's something in between... I wanted to describe two women at exactly that moment; a long past behind them, but the expectation of a considerable future in front of them."
It may come as no surprise that when men imagine what women talk about among themselves, the conclusion is "men" -- there is no significant part of the play that passes the Bechdel test. Although years have passed and both women are successful (Frances as a novelist and Madeleine as a provenance specialist), their reckoning with their "long past" revolves around talking about Martin (mostly in adoration, though he was clearly a scoundrel) and their "considerable future" (without Martin) looks a lot like loneliness.
As a two-person play that's basically just one long conversation, the success of THE BREATH OF LIFE relies heavily on the chemistry of the two actors and their ability to convey the complex emotions of the situation. On opening night, the emotional nuance wasn't there, which made it hard to empathize with the characters and understand their 40-year obsession with the absent Martin. Given that Corbett and Brothers are highly accomplished actors, I'm chalking this up to the fact that the play I saw was more like an early-stage rehearsal. I expect that the performances for the rest of the run will be much more engaging. If you see it, please let me know!
THE BREATH OF LIFE runs through June 16. More details and tickets here.