THEATER REVIEW: Play’s old allies arc toward a triumph

“Heroes” / Ghent Playhouse

ON THE GHENT PLAYHOUSE printed program for “Heroes,” Tom Stoppard gets a font-size almost as large as the playwright’s. The playwright is Gerald Sibleyras. Stoppard is translator. Or is Stoppard actually the playwright, as Ghent’s phone message says? Or is he “adaptor,” as some theaters advertise?

Let’s give credit to both for taking a tiny piece of real estate (the terrace of a French home for elderly military folk) and peopling it with a funny, touching, damaged but heroic human trio. The authors make it seem as if most of the human race meets daily in a place like that–for comfort, irritation, stimulation, for necessity, and if they’re lucky, for aliveness and survival. In spite of all the carping and nuttiness they pile upon one another, life for them is better together.

At Ghent, Sibleyras and Stoppard are abetted by director Cathy Lee-Visscher.

We knew Lee-Visscher could act, sing and direct, but who knew that she could also design sets? This small terrace, with its stony, gray-brown wings, tall, lace-curtained windows, and suggestion of a red-tiled roof, exudes both Frenchness and the atmosphere of a pleasantly maintained institution. One gated corner of the stage suggests a slope in the terrain, and there is sky. (The fact that the arc of the gate faithfully mimics the large arc of the terrace is a happy, self-effacing little bonus.)

Lighting by Grace Fay and Max Lagonia warms the terrace and creates the open, sky-space beyond.

Even the act-breaks speak French. Using an accordion or harmonica to underline Frenchness is usually a cliché, but not this accordion or harmonica! The player makes the instrument sing with uncharacteristic brilliance, even when it is leaping around the same two chords. The quality of Mark (Monk) Schane-Lydon’s sound on this music is yummy.

“Frenchy” as everything else is, the actors are not. I, for one, don’t really care.

The gentle Philippe is played winningly by William M. Sanderson.

George Filieau as Gustave gets off to an inauspicious start because, for a while, the character’s cranky misanthropy grabs for the same intonation on nearly every line. Later, with a little help from the script, a real person emerges.

Then there’s actor John Trainor as Henri. How is it that words and behaviors from Trainor always seem to bloom with extra depths and shades of meaning? And why is his character always interesting and fully present, even when the focus of a scene is elsewhere? Because he is an unusually gifted actor. (Excellent voice and impeccable diction don’t hurt either.)

Still, my theater companion was probably right to raise the traditional quibble about which side of the bad leg the cane goes on. Henri’s cane, in this case.

The large rectangle of the Ghent Playhouse proscenium is much nicer than those little rectangles we are so often glued to. And live people are up there on-stage, stretching our worldviews beyond our own small terraces. What a treat!

Go to Ghent.

The play runs through February 8.

 

 

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