There’s No Resisting Lookingglass’ Alluring ‘Lover’

by Hedy Weiss
Chicago Sun-Times
October 6, 2013

Highly Recommended

Marguerite Duras, the French writer and filmmaker, was born in 1914, in what we now call Saigon. She was a child of the French colonial world of Indochina, as well as of a troubled family in which her mother, a teacher, barely eked out a living for her and her two brothers after the departure of their father.

At the age of 16 (she may have been even younger), the precocious, alienated Duras met a handsome, wealthy, 27-year-old Chinese man while taking the ferry to her school. Their love affair would obsess her for the remainder of her long, eventful life, finding its way into several quasi-autobiographical novels, and then into the 1992 French film “The Lover.”

Now, in “The North China Lover,” an altogether exquisite Lookingglass Theatre premiere, adapter-director Heidi Stillman has worked a small miracle of artistic transubstantiation, creating a play that magically combines the meditative poetry of the page, the dreamy luminosity of cinema and the vivid reality of the stage. This is a real beauty of a show — erotic, exotic, psychologically probing and full of meticulously detailed performances. Intended for mature audiences (it contains an exceptionally lovely nude scene), it spins a story that has as much to do with memory, loss, money, exile, racism and cruelty as it does with love.

Leading us back in time is the figure of Duras, the writer “M,” played by Tony Award-winning actress Deanna Dunagan, in a sly, rueful, characteristically understated turn that is at once detached and tinged with pain. Rae Gray, with her slender figure, porcelain skin, doll-like face and intriguingly flat voice, embodies the writer’s adolescent incarnation, “The Child.” Notably dressed by costume designer Ana Kuzmanic in a pale green shift and boyish felt hat, Gray deftly captures both the innocence and preternatural worldliness of her character.

In the crucial role of “The Lover,” an opium-smoking playboy who has never had to work but is tied to Chinese tradition, there is Tim Chiou. He is remarkable. Beyond the fact of his physical beauty and grace, he suggests a man in whom both guile and guilt, the forbidden and the required, create a fascinating tension. But every character in this complex, disturbing story is expertly limned. Amy J. Carle is remarkable as “The Mother” — a woman of total awareness and immense charm, who clearly understands the tragedy of her own life, and her children’s, yet somehow maintains an open heart even when faced with humiliation. And as Helene, The Child’s adoring school friend, Allison Torem is wholly beguiling as the nerdy girl who can only dream of what her more daring (and more damaged) pal is actually living out.

Walter Owen Briggs is ideal as Pierre, The Child’s sadistic older brother and mama’s boy, with JJ Phillips as Paulo, his terrified younger brother, and Tracy Walsh as the Woman in Red, the lonely, promiscuous wife of a local French official.

Daniel Ostling, that genius of a set and lighting designer, has created what is essentially a series of black boxes (with a revolve stage for the all-important Chinese bed that exerts such a powerful effect), so the whole story unspools as if it were a movie. Equally brilliant is the playing of Betti Xiang, a virtuoso on the erhu (the two-stringed Chinese fiddle), whose music magically conjures all the intoxicating sights, sounds and alluring “foreignness” of this work’s haunting time and place.

Email: Twitter: @HedyWeissCriti

© Copyright 2013 Sun-Times Media, LLC


Adapter-director Heidi Stillman turns Marguerite Duras’s book into a gorgeously evocative memory play.

by Kris Vire
Time Out Chicago
October 7, 2013

In Heidi Stillman’s spare, seductive adaptation of Marguerite Duras’s 1992 book (which was itself a reputedly more revealing retelling of an episode from her youth she’d previously written about in 1984’s The Lover), the young Marguerite, living in what was then French colonial Indochina, takes up an affair with a wealthy Chinese playboy. The Child (Rae Gray), as she is referred to, meets the Lover (Tim Chiou) by chance on a ferry, and the air between them goes instantly electric; soon, she’s sneaking away from her boarding school ever more brazenly for trysts at his bachelor’s quarters.

Stillman inserts the elder Duras into the work, marvelously played by Deanna Dunagan as narrator and observer. This has the effect of making The North China Lover as evocative a stage rendering of the quality of memory as the best productions of The Glass Menagerie. Scenes and characters emerge from and recede into darkness in ways somehow both languorous and unexpected—Daniel Ostling’s scenic and lighting design work together in stunning fashion.

The presence of Dunagan as the writer, both wistful and magisterial in her remembrance, helps to mitigate modern discomfort with the idea of this girl in her young teens carrying on with an older man; these were formative and happily sensual experiences, we’re visually reminded. Gray nicely captures the Child’s blend of adolescent bravado and real, beyond-her-years self-assurance—a product, it seems, of a difficult life at home with her distant mother (Amy J. Carle) and brothers Pierre (Walter Owen Briggs), a dangerous ne’er-do-well, and the docile Paulo (JJ Phillips), who has been the Child’s previous lover. Chiou is stately, tender and demonstrates deep, frustrated sorrow when the pair’s unavoidable separation comes along—the kind of flame one would absolutely keep burning in your mind. Stillman’s one misstep is an ending that aims for closure rather than letting memory be enough.

© Copyright 2013 Time Out Chicago



by Lauren Whalen
Chicago Theatre Beat
October 15, 2013

Author Marguerite Duras knew a thing or two about heartbreak. Born Marguerite Donnadieu (Duras is a provincial French town), she was best known for the screenplay to “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” and is regarded as one of the most important writers of post-war France. But long before she started writing, Duras had a romantic interracial relationship as a teenager that later fueled a passionate story. Lookingglass Theatre’s The North China Lover attempts to translate this story to live theater, and the result is an aptly performed but somewhat muddled 95 minutes.

It’s the early 1930’s, and an impoverished schoolgirl (Rae Gray) is on the ferry from her family’s home in French Indo-China back to boarding school in Saigon. She encounters a wealthy young playboy (Tim Chiou) and soon the two become lovers, but complications arise from the girl’s troubled family and past, and the young man’s present engagement. Overseeing the action is M (Tony-Award winner Deanna Dunagan), who eventually puts her experiences in a novel, never fully getting over her first real lover.

The North China Lover is based upon Duras’ autobiographical novel “The Lover, L’amant”, which eventually became the basis for a 1992 film, which Duras disavowed. Director Heidi Stillman adapted the original novel for the stage, including Duras herself as the character M. It’s a choice that doesn’t quite work – M’s presence is the equivalent of voice-over narration in a film that doesn’t translate w\ell in live theater. Perhaps this would have been effective if M had set the scene at the beginning and appeared again at the end, but the constant narration of actions that are occurring in front of the audience’s eyes feels forced and condescending. It’s as if Stillman doesn’t trust us, the spectators, to understand the character-driven, plot-light story, and this distrust is the core fault of the play.

To her credit, Stillman has an excellent sense of pacing and, aside from a few dragging moments, the story moves along quickly and organically. Her decision to keep production values simple is a smart one: nothing’s bombastic, yet everything carries the ephemeral intelligence that is Lookingglass’ signature style. Daniel Ostling’s spare set design uses a revolving stage to great effect, and his lighting is haunting and ethereal. Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes accurately convey the poverty of the girl’s world contrasted with the opulence of the lover’s lifestyle, and Rick Sims’ sound design includes stunning live music played onstage by Betti Xiang.

The strongest element of The North China Lover is its superb cast. Chiou’s Lover is physically breathtaking and equal parts suave and heartfelt. JJ Phillips and Walter Owen Briggs’ shine as the girl’s brothers, each troubled and broken in their own unique ways. Allison Torem, last seen at Lookingglass in Trust, is delightfully awkward as the girl’s boarding school roommate Helene, whose goofy naivete provides a sharp contrast to the girl’s world-weary demeanor. But the play belongs to Gray, who delivers an astonishing interpretation of a very complex young woman. The girl may be a virgin, but at 16 going on 17 she’s no stranger to tempestuous life changes and dysfunctional relationships. She is at once childlike and an old soul, and Gray’s musical speaking voice, long limbs and quirky smile suggest someone on the cusp of adulthood who’s already lost her innocence more than once.

As someone who adores female-driven stories, beautiful language and Lookingglass, I wanted to like The North China Lover more than I actually did. All of the elements are there, but something essential is missing: respect for the audience’s intelligence. Each character is smart and cunning in his or her own way, and spectators can be cognizant of that without having everything spelled out for them. If only Stillman had left out the superfluous narration, and let us enjoy the stellar acting, sharp production values and compelling story.




Runs through Nov. 10 at the Theatre at Water Tower Water Works

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