CLEVELAND - My, how art can mirror life, and visa versa.
One need look no further than "Lunacy," a riveting, lean, honest and deceptively simple play being given its world premiere in Cleveland through May 27.
The production packs as powerful performances as I've seen in just one hour and 25 minutes of theater, including one 15-minute intermission.
Sandra Perlman's play, set in 1827 Philadelphia and New York, illustrates live theater's power to move audience members. How many of us have seen a play, perhaps for the first time, and said we had no idea how this vibrant art form could cause such empathy?
Corneila Lamb, one of the main characters, says such a remark at the end of the play. The young Quaker woman, portrayed with heartfelt sensitivity by Bernadette Clemens, had just seen what she felt was a powerful portrayal of King Lear by rising Shakespearean star Edwin Forrest. (The late performer is considered America's first great Shakespearean actor.)
The performance spoke to Lamb, a newcomer to theater, because her elderly father, Benjamin, had grown mad just like King Lear, one of Shakespeare's greatest tragic heroes. Through Forrest's performance, she could see herself losing her father all over again.
"That is the greatest review I've ever received," Forrest responds, in one of the more touching moments.
Dan Hammond's performance as the former real-life actor deserves kudos as well. Hammond deftly captures Forrest's smug, self-worshipping attitude, arrogance dripping from his powerful voice. As "Lunacy" progresses, Forrest becomes kinder, and Hammond undergoes an impressive transformation to convey a man with a heart, one with a more tender voice.
Benjamin's madness, played vividly and hauntingly by Michael Regnier, sets the plot in motion. Lamb arrives one day in a Philadelphia theater, where Forrest is rehearsing. Lamb asks Forrest to come with her and witness "The Perfect Lear," her father a Shakespearean scholar and teacher in his younger days.
She hopes Forrest will help Benjamin, who has lost his mind and thinks he is King Lear, emerge from his madness.
"Lunacy" not only confirms the link between art and real life, it raises the question of how to best prepare for a role. Forrest, we learn, has gone to insane asylums to observe how patients act, in an effort to create authentic portrayals.
Forrest does so once again by accompanying Cornelia to an asylum where her father lives.
But does this method amount to mimicking others? Accompanying Cornelia raises another issue: Is it an act of lunacy, kindness or selfishness that of a self-centered performer wanting only to succeed in his career? These are some of the questions raised, but not necessarily answered, by Perlman.
It is no accident she named the female lead character Cornelia. The name is similar to "Cordelia," the devoted and honest daughter of King Lear, a father about to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, Regan, Goneril and Cordelia.
Lear tells his daughters the size of property each will receive will be proportionate to how much they love him. Regan and Goneril, lying, flatter their father with poetic words to indicate their intense "love" for him. Cordelia says she loves her father just like any devoted daughter would no more, no less.
To help lead Benjamin out of the world of the play ("King Lear"), Forrest helps Benjamin's daughter portray Cordelia. Only with Lear's death, occurring at the end of Shakespeare's play, will this happen.
While you won't find many people who think they are King Lear, people with Azheimer's Disease have been known to act as he does.
Sadly, as powerful as theater is, a loved one cannot "bring the person out" of the crippling disease by playing a fictional character.
How nice it would be if, in that instance, theater would not only mirror life, but be one and the same.
Aaron Krause is a Reflector staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com
Aug. 23, 2010