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Theater Review:

"MARIA ARNDT" at Steppenwolf Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

At the allegorical center of "Maria Arndt" sits a sculpture, which connoisseurs have allegedly debated whether it represents Eros (love) or Thanatos (death) – to parallel the title character’s tormented toggling between emotion, reason and the lack of choices that may force someone to take his or her own life. But that’s about as figurative or suggestive as this "lost" 1908 German play by Elsa Bernstein gets.

Steppenwolf ensemble member Tina Landau discovered this melodrama, with feminist underpinnings, in an anthology of female playwrights. It’s now receiving its world premiere (featuring a new translation by Curt Columbus) at Steppenwolf Theatre.

Bernstein led a fascinating and tragic life. The upper-class, Vienna-born playwright and intellectual was a great champion of women’s education. She wrote several manuscripts (many of them now destroyed) and hosted salons on the subjects of arts and letters.

But her life changed drastically in 1939. Seeking refuge from the Nazis, Bernstein and her sister tried to immigrate to the United States. When her sister was denied a visa and Bernstein refused to abandon her in Germany, they were both sent to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp. Bernstein survived the camp to live with her only daughter in Hamburg until her death at the age of 83 in 1949.

Her fervent belief in intellectual opportunities for women is certainly at the core of "Maria Arndt." And her play no doubt addressed jaw-droppingly risky topics for its time. Yet, for all of its daring and integrity, this play is closer to a Harlequin romance novel than to the works of Henrik Ibsen, who is believed to have influenced Bernstein’s writing.

The central problem is that the play contains absolutely no subtext. Painfully straightforward and over-the-top, "Maria Arndt" could easily be a parody of any one of those abundant turn-of-the-20th-century bodice rippers – saved only by the fact that the heroine takes such a progressive point of view regarding her daughter Gemma’s education. Sadly, though, "Maria Arndt" ends with a predictable, unnecessary and anti-climactic act that eradicates the story’s relentless push for intellectual development.

"Maria Arndt" is set in a gorgeous villa in a German university town, where the title character has relocated with Gemma to escape a "Pygmalion"-like existence in Florence. Maria’s husband, whom we never meet, is an accomplished painter/sculptor in Italy. No longer able to tolerate what she perceives as an objectification of women (especially within the male-dominated art world), Maria settles temporarily in Germany to mold her daughter’s mind before the young girl enters society. Mother and daughter discuss sexuality and the reproductive system, and they read Plato’s "Phaedo" together (with this chronicle of Socrates’ noble suicide serving as the play’s most blatant foreshadowing tactic).

Yet, at the same time Maria cautions Gemma against the dangers of falling in love with her soldier-suitor Otto, she is in the throes of impassioned anguish over the arrival of doctor-adventurer Gerhardt Claussner, her former lover now intent on winning her back. Maria must choose between her almost monk-like commitment to the virtues of scholarly knowledge and the unfettered joy of physical love – ultimately making a decision that places Gemma’s future in jeopardy.

Unfortunately, Maria’s "sacrifice" is presented in such a pat and one-dimensional manner that it comes across as shallow and pointless – not hopelessly crushing as one would expect.

Another reason why it’s impossible to get close to these characters is that they have been barely developed beyond their most rudimentary needs. Maria does a lot of sighing and reclining. Gemma skips through the estate’s gardens and brags about her latest intellectual achievements.

Claussner takes the prize for the most wooden suitor to ever march in riding boots across the stage. Also annoying is the stiff family of Maria’s neighbor, Council President Von Tucher and his two children – the lovesick, immature Otto and smug, buttoned-up Amanda. Their brief scenes are more frivolous than revelatory.

Bernstein also attempts to give some depth to the domestic help in the play, only to shove them squarely into disturbing stereotypes. Tekla the unmarried chambermaid gets pregnant (a situation solely concocted to demonstrate Maria’s tolerance); and dour Italian housekeeper Agata is written as a cliched matron tightly wound around superstition and morality.

Landau, who also directs, cannot overcome the play’s embarrassingly melodramatic flaws. Neither can the gifted design team. John Lee Beatty’s grand pillared rotunda of a set, lusciously lit by Scott Zielinski, fails to conceal the paltry story and unsubtle dialogue. Catherine Zuber’s lovely flowing costumes – accented in soft olive greens and creams – mirror the play’s breathless sighs and rushes of emotion, while the dissonant cello strains of Rob Milburn’s and Michael Bodeen’s original music/sound design telegraph the torment as much as Bernstein’s script.

Molly Regan, a great classical-dramatic actress, seems retrofitted into the role of Maria. While stronger in her character’s immovable moments, Regan does not convincingly reveal Maria’s struggles with her heart – making her dilemma practically unnoticeable. Poised young actress Greta Sidwell Honold (a sophomore at Northside College Prep) opts for a mannered portrayal of Gemma. She appears uncomfortable in the language’s skin and has been over-coached – further emphasizing the play’s inherent stiffness.

Everyone else suffers a similar stilted fate, including Christopher Innvar’s brooding Claussner, who is forced to proclaim how "Europe is absolutely stifling!" Brad Eric Johnson and Brett Korn as Otto and Amanda, respectively, could be stick figures since they have no truly dignified or pertinent lines to speak of. Only Bradley Armacost injects a sympathetic transformational quality into Von Tucher, who is most torn between a repressive and more open-minded world view.

There is little to glean from a drama in which the characters blurt out their every motivation -- even if they are fortunate to speak through Columbus’ eloquent translation. The terms "rational" and "I can no longer resist" hammer home the pull between heart and head – and the fact that one must choose death if these two dichotomies threaten to coexist.

Except in "Maria Arndt," Eros and Thanatos become so achingly literal they leave no room for debate or ambiguity. I half-expected these ideas to materialize on stage and challenge each other to a fencing match – or, in the more apropos Romantic vein, to a duel.•

"Maria Arndt" runs through March 31 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. Tickets: $35-$50. Call 312-335-1650 or log onto www.steppenwolf.org.
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