A touch of the poet

Hecate's Cave

By Susan Tammany
Directed by Betsy Johnson
Cassandra Productions
Wings Theatre
154 Christopher St. (561-9774)
Equity showcase (closes April 28)
Review by Adrienne Onofri

In all of American literature, never was a story of more woe than Sylvia Plath and her Romeo, Ted Hughes. This intriguing drama fictionalizes their relationship. Like Plath, the main character, Delia Blick, is a smart, pretty blonde from Massachusetts who suffers a nervous breakdown at age 20 and falls in love a few years later with a British poet (here named Nial Hoegtesse).

The first act is set in 1955, when the two meet at Cambridge University. They inspire and rejuvenate each other - and ignore signs that Delia (Melissa Hurst) has the potential to eclipse Nial (Timothy Smallwood), who is initially the more accomplished writer. It's sort of like Shakespeare in Love-meets-A Star Is Born. By 1962, when the second act takes place, their marriage is crumbling under the weight of his infidelities, her mental anguish, and their professional rivalry.

Tammany clearly considers Hughes the villain. Nial/Ted often hypnotizes his wife, purportedly to relieve her troubled psyche but actually to glean ideas for his poetry - ideas that he discourages Delia/Sylvia from using in her own work. Furthermore, once he meets the woman who becomes his mistress, he is cruel and insulting to his wife, even prodding her to commit suicide.

Regardless of her bias, Tammany merits acclaim for an intelligent script that required her to create poetry in the style of Plath and Hughes - that is, rich in mythological and animal imagery. Tammany faithfully recreates Plath's prolific final weeks, in which she wrote up to three poems a day (published posthumously in the book Ariel): in the play, Delia's imagination soars as her despair deepens. Plath's preoccupation with the Holocaust is also represented in Hecate's Cave, via a character named Dick Tass (well played by Arthur French), a disfigured concentration-camp survivor befriended by Delia.

Tammany's script does need some tightening. The play loses focus toward the end and takes too long to conclude. Another negative in the production was the superiority of Smallwood's performance over Hurst's. Although a competent actor, Hurst acted too ditzy in the first act. Smallwood, meanwhile, was just what Nial should be: handsome, charming and - in the beginning, at least - romantic. Smallwood's fine portrayal made Delia's devotion to Nial convincing because he always revealed just enough charisma that his malevolence continually took the audience, and Delia, by surprise. (Smallwood's one transgression: keeping his hands in his pockets, particularly during fights.) Janet Geist was rather unappealing as Nial's mistress, Natasha, which made it tough to understand why Nial was enthralled by her. The fault may lie with the playwright's uneven character development as much as with Geist's portrayal.

The technical aspects of Hecate's Cave were mixed. Background music - from Elvis to Piaf to a sorrowful Adagio - was appropriate to the time and mood of the scenes. However, the sound effects - a baby crying, a phone ringing - were too obviously recordings. The set was ill-conceived in places: actors had to part curtains to walk through doors, and there wasn't enough furniture in Delia and Nial's home - characters had to put down their glasses on the sofa or floor because there was no endtable. Furthermore, the stove Delia uses to kill herself was onstage, but she went offstage to go to the kitchen, which didn't make sense. (Also featuring Bobby Sacher and Mark Shunock; set, Nuttakom Chamyen; lighting, Aaron Spivey.)
Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Set: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 1999 Adrienne Onofri