Produced by Washington Stage Guild
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Jason Stiles and Sunshine Cappelitti (photo: C. Stanley Photography)
As the Washington Stage Guild director Bill Largess observes in The Countess program, the scandal of the 19th Century would make news in our supermarket tabloids today.In 1853, John Ruskin, a great writer who clarified and defined the Victorian Age, publicly defended the avant-garde, pre-Raphaelite artists for freeing the art world from the Royal Academy’s rigid rules. Appearances were deceiving. At home as a husband, he was prim and arid, a neurotic mess. But he blamed his "mentally unbalanced" wife, Euphemia, a.k.a. Effie, for the strife. "You’re not what I think a woman should be." He wanted a marble Venus or a painting of a Renaissance saint, an ideal. No twenty-first century woman would put up with such a pompous, suffocating prig. Neither did Effie. She ran off with Ruskin’s protégé, the pre-Raphaelite painter, John Millais. Queen Victoria banned Effie, who was not exactly a Princess Di, from existence over their divorce.
As a play, The Countess is a dazzling, wonderfully ironic little gem. The cast in this well-paced production is superb. Debuting at the Washington Stage Guild, Sunshine Cappelletti (Effie), nicknamed "the countess", positively glows with incandescent rebellion. Effie is really a gorgeous and rebellious Ophelia. Physically, it’s as if Cappelletti stepped out of a John Millais painting of that title, hanging on the Ruskin parlor wall.
The rest of the cast is picture perfect as well and just as tuned in to the nuanced dialogue of first time playwright Gregory Murphy’s script. To actor Steven Carpenter’s credit, he succeeds in making Ruskin a rather pathetic tyrant, who utters empty-headed platitudes before the London Royal Academy and Philosophical Institution in Scotland. But Carpenter’s Ruskin also arouses sympathy in his breakdown scene.
Jason Stiles (John Millais), plays the Scottish artist who proclaims art is light and beauty, with impetuous innocence. Millais eagerly agrees to holiday with Ruskin and Effie for four months in a cottage in the Scottish Highlands. The threesome wish to seal their bond in aesthetics and let Millais paint Ruskin in a natural background. Erotic sparks fly between the painter and the oppressed Effie, who prefers the wild, natural beauty of the Highlands to London. Over her drawing pad, Effie jokes, "I’m getting hungry." In one lingering moment, surfaces crack and they fall in love.
What we believe is not as important as what we do, Ruskin once wrote. And we see Effie’s emancipation foreshadowed. In one illuminating scene, Effie re-enacts for Millais the time in Venice when she commandeered a gondola and cruised the Grand Canal with wind in her face and hair. But Ruskin has weighted his wife down with his convictions. To him, she’s a sick depressive, plagued with fits of anger. Millais, in contrast, sees her as a neglected woman of "dignity, grace, wit and intelligence."
Life with the Ruskin in-laws completes the portrait of a marriage made in hell. Margaret Ruskin, played with smug self-righteousness by Ilona Dulaski, opines that Effie needs a specialist for "nervous disorders." Together with Effie’s father-in-law, the elder Ruskin, played with the righteous wrath of a Moses by Vincent Clark, calls Effie "neurasthenic." We see that compared to living in the Ruskin household, an insane asylum would be welcome relief. If only Effie would run away with Millais when he decides to leave the country for Cairo, Egypt.
But the action that takes place from the summer of 1853 to the spring of 1854 has more twists, complexity and surprises. A dated, drawing-room comedy, it is not. The intense moment of revelation at the end is indeed shocking. What this marriage has done to one woman could be the distillation of marriage for a generation of Victorian women. Effie grovels with fear at the foot of her loyal female friend, Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, played with rapier wit and withering control by Louise Andrews. As with some abused women today, Effie is terrified of leaving.
Designer William Pucilowsky’s costumes are lush. Effie’s Act II turquoise-blue dress with hoop skirt balloons with dignity and makes Ellie a peacock on display, a decorative object in the Ruskin parlor. Lady Eastlake is resplendent in red dress and clashing pink bonnet that matches her forthright personality. In contrast, the staging is minimalist with realistic touches. The intense damp from the Scottish heath invades our bones as the actors enter, shaking real water from their wraps. More elaborate sets are really not needed.
The focus is on the cyclical structure that ends where it began with a voice-over announcement from Queen Victoria. It’s years later, near the end of Millais’ life, when Effie is finally accepted as the celebrated painter’s wife. Beyond the play, it’s even better to know that nature wins out. Effie’s and John’s marriage produced eight children in a happy household.
The Countess continues through Feb. 4, 2007, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. $35, Fri. and Sat., 8 p.m.$40, Sat./Sun matinees at 2:30 p.m., $35, at the Washington Stage Guild, 1901 14th Street, NW (14th and T), two blocks from the U Street/Cardozo Metro, 13th Street exit) on the Green Line. For information and reservations, call 240-582-0050 or visit http://www.stageguild.org/.