Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

January 22, 2008

"Zerline's Tale"

Hartford Stage, Hartford CT
through February 10, 2008
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

The accomplished actress Elizabeth Ashley in, essentially, a one-woman play, holds an audience’s attention for 75 minutes as she stirs a cauldron of major emotions that stem from a time in Zerline’s life. Burbling from the past into the present are desire, jealousy, abandonment, revenge, all woven into a narrative that Ashley spins with the skill and aplomb of a Scheherazade. As Zerline tells her story, she re-experiences the feelings that surfeited her being forty years earlier. Within an aging female servant, there still lives a flirtatious country girl, once innocent but now worldly wise, who revels telling about her romances, and who especially relishes the memories of perfect bliss and of schemes to avenge her heartache.

Ashley as Zerline represents the epitome of type casting. She’s the right age (she comfortably acknowledges she is 68). Like Zerline, to borrow a reference to Agnes Gooch, she’s lived. Among her professional kudos is the Tony Award she won when 22. In 1974 when 34, she sizzled as Maggie in a Broadway revival of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." In 2005 in Hartford Stage’s "Cat..." she was Big Mama ("Elizabeth Ashley’s Big Mama endures her husband’s verbal abuse; across her face play waves of grief as she braces for his fatal illness.") As Zerline, a maid who absorbed many of her employer’s refinements, her fluid gestures reflect her study of ballet, lo so many moons ago.

Adapted and translated by Jeremy Sams, this is the American premiere of "Zerline’s Tale" and the first English-language production. The play is based on one chapter from a novel, "The Guiltless," by Hermann Broch.

Scenic Designer Alexander Dodge has replicated a typical small bedsitting room in a substantial European home – high ceiling, mammoth wardrobe, a shuttered window, a fireplace that burns large chunks of coal, a narrow bed, and more – and two people occupy that space, Zerline and Man (Jon David Casey) who is almost as mute as Zerline is verbose. Casey is attentive, caught up in Zerline’s memories. Let’s face it: we’re all suckers for a good story well told.

This polished production is Director Michael Wilson’s ninth project with Elizabeth Ashley, a collaboration that works exceedingly well.