In Apologia, the well-acted, finely directed Off-Broadway production of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s 2009 play, Stockard Channing portrays Kristin Miller, a long-time activist, American expatriate and noted art historian who has entitled her recently published memoir Apologia. Apologia is a word, she is quick to point out, that should not be confused with an apology. “It means a formal, written defense of one’s opinions or conduct,” she explains to the small gathering in her cottage in the English countryside to celebrate her birthday.
But her two sons (both impressively portrayed by Hugh Dancy) feel she owes them an apology. They see her as having abandoned them when they were children. “I woke up one morning and realized that pretty much everything we are and everything we do is a response against you,” one of them says. They are both furious that she doesn’t even mention them in her memoir.
Is Kristin’s idealism defensible; what are the personal costs of public idealism? That is a question that the playwright in effect asks in Apologia, but in many ways it’s the least interesting or worthwhile aspect of his witty and engaging play.
The contrast between past idealism and present-day reality is a well-trod subject on stage. An exemplar of the genre, Wendy Wasserstein’s acclaimed 1988 play The Heidi Chronicles,even focuses on an idealist who becomes an art historian, just like Kristin. Wasserstein’s play also features a droll homosexual sidekick. So does Campbell’s; that is Hugh (John Tillinger), Kristin’s long-time friend, who is supposed to know her best. “In your pursuit of the common good,” he says as part of his birthday toast, “you have offered yourself to as many causes as I’ve had social diseases.”
Campbell explored the difference in eras more effectively in The Pride in 2010, his first play in New York, which starred Ben Whishaw and Hugh Dancy, and presented gay life in two different eras, 1958 and 2008, in alternating scenes.
Apologia takes place over a single evening in Kristin’s kitchen, at the birthday celebration attended by Hugh, Kristin’s two sons Peter and Simon, and the sons’ girlfriends. We eventually learn why the sons are so resentful: Kristin’s ex-husband more or less kidnapped them away from her at age 7 and 9 when she was writing a book in Florence three decades ago. This seems too specific a circumstance to hang a J’accuse against an entire generation of idealists.
There are signs from the get-go that the dinner won’t be going smoothly. Her oven is not working, which feels like a metaphor. Kristin does not come off as a warm person. She’s sarcastic, full of zingers (a Channing specialty), which she directs largely at her sons’ girlfriends. Trudi is an American; her nationality surprises and annoys Kristin, who left America for England when she was 22 years old, “hungry for a challenge…I also wanted an ocean between my mother and myself.” Trudi is also a religious Christian, further irritating Kristin.
Claire is an actress in a soap opera, an entertainment toward which Kristin openly expresses her contempt, and which she sees as a betrayal of Claire’s talent, which she demonstrated to Kristin when she used to perform on stage. It may initially seem peculiar that Kristin is picking on these women. But her attitude starts to make sense, both psychologically for the character, and thematically for the play, when Claire calls herself an artist and Kristin scoffs: “An artist was someone whose voice could be the instigator of social change. And it’s that voice that we hang on to in some way to save us from the rampant stupidity of religion on the one hand and vacuous consumerism on the other.” To Kristin, in other words, Trudi and Claire represent what happens in a world that devalues art.
It is a testament to the playwright that the play doesn’t dismiss the girlfriends as thoroughly as Kristin does, allowing them reasonable defenses (apologias?) for their choices in life. Trudi (Talene Monahon) is good-hearted and far from fanatical. Claire (Megalyn Echikunwoke) grew up traumatized and impoverished, and is aware of her need for the stability that a big paycheck can bring.
But Campbell does seem to share in Kristin’s belief in the power of art. At one point, Kristin patiently/impatiently answers Trudi’s innocent question about the 14th century painter Giotto: What was it about him “that grabbed you so? Why him and not the others?”
Kristin asks Trudi to imagine the brutal life of a young woman in a small Italian village in the 14th century “you work in some field all hours of the day and at night you have to care for a family of nine..including a husband who regularly and happily beats you.”
In Church one day, “your eyes drift upwards to just one part of a giant fresco that adorns the vaulted ceilings above you: an image of the Madonna cradling the dead body of her son in her arms…You realize now that this face is not only recognizable- the face is yours. Your weeping eyes, your pale cheeks, your mouth that slightly curls with doubt….your whole view of life changes forever…”
It is a long monologue; my excerpts don’t do it full justice. It is breathtaking — one of several moments that in and of themselves make Apologia worth seeing. They compensate for the antiquated insinuation that political or professional commitment may be incompatible with motherhood.
Apologia is on stage at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre (111 West 46th Street, west of Sixth Avenue, New York, NY, 10036) through December 16, 2018. Tickets and details
Apologia Written by Alexi Kaye Campbell, directed by Daniel Aukin. Set design by Dane Laffrey, costume design by Anita Yavich, lighting design by Bradley King, sound design and original music by Ryan Rumery, dialect coach Ben Furey. Featuring Stockard Channing as Kristin Miller, Hugh Dancy as Peter and Simon, Megalyn Echikunwoke as Claire, Talene Monahon as Trudi, John Tillinger as Hugh. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell