“This is the last day of my life,” says poet Sylvia Plath (Angelica Torn) at the opening of Paul Alexander’s one-woman play (running at the Odyssey Theatre), before she walks us through the 30 years that led up to that moment. Plath’s painful life, and her austerely ironic descriptions of it, would place her high on the acropolis of 1970s feminist icons. When the world last heard from the author of Ariel, her head was planted deep inside a gas oven following another row with her estranged husband, Britain’s future poet laureate Ted Hughes. Here, we find Plath seated at a writing desk, silently composing by candlelight. It’s an archly literary, somewhat precious, setting, but Plath quickly erupts into two hours of rage, resentment and sarcasm, knocking over a chair and slamming her glass of water. She’s no Belle of Amherst.
Alexander’s chronicle begins with Plath’s Boston upbringing in a stern, German-American home lorded over by her biologist father, who dies of diabetic complications when Sylvia is 8. A precocious writer, she is first published as a child, attends Smith College with honors, gets a plum job in New York as a student editor at Mademoiselle and wins a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge. A darkness always gnaws at the edge of her brilliance, however, along with a deep sense of guilt over her father’s untimely death. She first slashes an ankle with a razor, then, at 20, tries to kill herself with sleeping pills. Her suicide bids are followed by therapy, including rounds of electroshock treatments.
Edge is based on Alexander’s research for his 1991 Plath biography, Rough Magic. Alexander, who directs his play, says that Torn took the material he distilled into a monologue and interpreted it her own way. Torn gives us an unexpected take on Plath, whom the public has mostly perceived as a fragile if accusatory voice, a woman whose Cassandra-like martyrdom was preordained in a culture led by controlling males. Torn, however, delivers her observations like Holden Caulfield channeling Dorothy Parker — that is, with a wounded teenager’s harsh candor mixed with an impulse to epigrammatize every thought and give it a sardonic spin through such ornamental phrases as “so to speak,” “as it were” and “as they say.”
Alexander’s book was a partisan salvo in the “Plath wars” that landed firmly on the side of Hughes haters who denounce the poet for his alleged emotional and physical abuse of Plath, as well as for his manipulation of her literary legacy and his enrichment from it. His play reduces Hughes, who died in 1998, to the role of a human piñata that Torn pounds with glee. (Perhaps “Mussolini” is a more accurate description than piñata, since Plath’s second-act assault on Hughes’ lover, Assia Wevill, strings up the mistress alongside him à la Clara Petacci. Wevill, incidentally, would also later gas herself — and their 4-year-old daughter — upon learning of Hughes’ infidelity to her.)
Torn’s Plath is a tough gal and she makes sure we know it. “I am a strong and resilient woman,” she says, and at first this new image seems like a refreshing departure from the dashboard saint Plath has become. Coifed in the blond tresses familiar from photos of Plath, she speaks in the poet’s heavy, somewhat toffee, voice. Torn has played the role since the production opened in New York at the Actors Studio in 2003; although she is older than Plath at the time of her death, the difference adds a depth and perspective to her lines that might not come across from a 30-year-old actor.
The problem is that Torn seldom changes tone for the entire show and before long sounds like a whiny kvetch. Almost nothing and no one seem to please her. Her mother is dismissed as “ambitious, stubborn, frequently neurotic and always [emotionally] demanding.” (Hel-lo?, as they say.) England, where Plath would eventually live and die, is just an island full of people with bad teeth. She gets to live in the same flat once occupied by W.B. Yeats but notes that its heating isn’t up to American standards. She even complains that the Wellesley basement in which she carried out her second suicide attempt was made claustrophobic from her mother’s junk. Of course, this is Alexander’s well-researched Plath talking, but without another actor onstage acting as a foil, the Bell Jar author’s nonstop barbs lose their sting.
About the only parts where Torn broadens her range are during Plath’s sessions with Ruth Barnhouse, the psychiatrist who nudged her to some important self-realizations. This is where Torn really opens up, when Sylvia confronts the memory of Otto Plath by visiting his grave and discovers that her union with Hughes is really a marriage to her father. In such impressive moments, Torn’s performance moves from bravado to bravura.
There are no direct quotes from Plath’s writing in this play, yet Torn completely personifies, during this cemetery scene that ends Act 1, the Electra-fied love-hate theme of Plath’s most famous poem, “Daddy.” And her re-enactment of Plath’s final, successful suicide attempt, in which our narrator imagines Hughes by her side in the oven, is cathartic to the point that it’s hard to imagine Torn being able to wrench herself away from that moment’s spell for long enough to acknowledge the post-performance applause.
In the emotional bandwidth of confessional poetry, Plath occupies a midrange between Robert Lowell and Adrienne Rich, but her constant complaining in Edge makes her sound like a royal pain and, unintentionally, Hughes’ desertion of her and their two children look like a reasonable decision. Before long, we begin to wonder if we’d even be watching this show if Plath hadn’t killed herself — or how she even lasted 30 years.
Hear Plath reading “Daddy”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hHjctqSBwM.
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EDGE | By PAUL ALEXANDER | At the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A. | Through ?March 2 | (310) 477-2055
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