Theater Review (NYC Off-Broadway): ‘Apologia’ by Alexi Kaye Campbell, Starring Stockard Channing, Hugh Dancy
Apologia by Alexi Kaye Campbell poses the question: At what point must women decide between their families and their careers? Why do they have to? Should family members judge them for making their own individual choices? Must they always sacrifice their own identities to the happiness of husbands, sons? Would men in the same position subvert their own happiness allowing their wives to self-actualize without them?
Apologia, starring Stockard Channing as American art historian and human rights activist Kristin Miller in a riveting performance that spellbinds with truth and power, answers some of these questions. Playing both of Kristin’s sons, Peter and Simon, Hugh Dancy provides a tremendously potent assist as the initial backboard for Kristin’s edgy, ironic sarcasm. And then he doesn’t, in a turn which startles and leaves one breathless. Along with Talene Monahon’s deeply nuanced and empathetic Trudi, the twists of the evening and Trudi’s last comment lead Kristin on a long-awaited journey toward an acknowledged and necessary expiation.
Directed ably by Daniel Aukin, the Roundabout production is presented in special arrangement with Trafalgar Entertainment group, DB Productions, and The Dodgers. The themes scale up to the mountains women continually climb. However, each woman’s specific experience, though easily generalized, brings out unique circumstances. Such is true for Kristin Miller and her family.
Forty years ago, when Kristin Miller had her sons, feminists’ efforts to shatter the glass ceilings were faltering. Over the decades women found that “having it all” exhausted them, because they didn’t actually “have it all.” The differences loomed, as they still do, between men’s and women’s efforts to create success. And what of those women who forge ahead only to confront the ire and snide glances of men, family, and other women? Like Kristin, realizing they have to go it alone, these mavericks harden their souls because they must.
Thus, only the sound of their own ironic understanding resonates within. And gradually their rough edges blossom forming steely, stolid personalities. Such tough, determined women become renowned for their achievements. This life path sustains Kristin over the decades, supported by friends, through socio-political events and sometimes family gatherings. And then –
On the evening the action begins, her family and a friend visit for dinner and her birthday, bearing gifts. It’s the spring of 2009 in the UK, and the world wide economy is attempting to recover from the mortgage debacle which her son Peter, a congenial banker, may have helped preside over.
During the birthday celebration, we discover an intriguing antithesis. When Kristin’s marriage failed, her husband left. But he didn’t leave her for another woman. Instead, he left her bereft, took the children without a discussion, and divorced her. She could see her songs only on holidays. Irony of ironies, he left despite their shared values and mutual respect. With all of that, he still couldn’t tolerate her gaining her own voice.
In speaking truth to power, sparking her own personal revolution through discovering the maverick Renaissance painter Giotto’s revolution, Kristin soared. And while she moved progressively upward, her husband felt abandoned. In turn, he abandoned her without notice. She stood strong against the winds, but we learn that this abandonment and betrayal changed all of their lives forever.
In an illuminating performance, Channing portrays Kristin Miller as one of the culture’s more steadfast moral compasses. We appreciate her acute sensitivity and wit when she calls her party guests on the carpet with reasonable arguments. For example, she elevates Simon’s girlfriend Claire (the wonderful Megalyn Echikunwoke) for her acting talents, shown as she plays an innovative Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. On the other hand she calls her down when Claire refers to her soap opera acting job as “artistic.” And she ironically roots out from Claire that she paid over 2,000 pounds for a designer dress because she “deserved it.” Friend Hugh (the humorous, well paced John Tillinger) finds such an amount for a dress nearly obscene. So does Kristin, a communist and activist who attends protests with great hope and fervor.
As the play progresses we acknowledge Kristin’s outer invulnerability and searing, humorous acerbity. The guests circle around her with care. Only her longtime friend Hugh understands. And he praises her and defends her as they discuss their fun past filled with war protests and marches. However, once in a while, Talene Monahon’s Trudi pings a chip in Kristin’s protective shell. As simplistic and washed out as Kristin would make Trudi out to be, we realize this is a blind. Indeed, the information Trudi has gleaned from Peter’s discussion of his mother has stirred Trudi with insight. And the wisdom she gained Trudi drives like an arrow through Kristin’s hardness into the depths of her softening heart.
In this ominous time when Kristin first meets Trudi, a transformation occurs. Trudi brings an intriguing present which has great symbolic significance, initially unknown to all. Kristin looks up its description and identifies its purpose and meaning. Assuredly, Trudi has chosen this gift with intuition, as it fits who Kristin represents. However, the revelation occurs after Simon’s momentous visit and departure. Dancy’s portrayal of Peter’s brother Simon rings with a poetic, stark emptiness that breaks Kristin’s heart though she doesn’t readily show it. Channing’s subtle portrayal implies her inner brokenness with Simon. The actors mesmerize us in this scene.
As the lighting design indicates, Simon’s being remains in the shadows. Though his mother tenderly attempts to bind his wounds from a fall, she succeeds only with the physical flesh. Instantly, we realize this ministration of wrapping Simon’s wounds symbolizes a greater action on her part.
Kristin cannot bind the emotional lacerations he experienced when the family split up. Not completely understanding what happened between his parents, Simon doesn’t know why she never came for his brother and him. But he takes a small step in realizing that his current feelings reflect reactions from the past about her. This realization comes because Kristin doesn’t refer to her two sons as part of her “life and times” in her memoir that has just been published. Indeed, both Peter and Simon must acknowledge Kristin’s identity as separate from theirs, yet a part of them. Finally, they must stop blaming her and take responsibility for their own baleful choices.
Will Simon ever understand that Kristin, in pursuing her own identity and self-validation, benefited him? Crickets for now; maybe not in the future. Though Simon leaves with a stain on his heart, perhaps the door has opened a crack to let in more light. He decides to finalize his relationship with Claire. Indeed, this evening of understanding may portend a new beginning in Kristin’s and Simon’s relationship.
Though Kristin’s evening celebration went through its own thunder and lightning storm, the light of day shines on each of the guests. Peter apologizes. And Kristin apologizes to him. Her hard, humorous, sardonic protections appear to soften. Suppressed emotions pour out and the air clears. However, whether this result will move the sons in a finer direction of empathy toward their mother, Campbell leaves open.
Thankfully, hope appears on the horizon in the profound shape of Peter’s Christian fiancée, Trudi, who may really be what Christians are supposed to be, loving and understanding. Incredibly, Campbell cleverly sneaks this in without fanfare.
Campbell’s work shepherded by the director and actors subtly draws us into this family evening that flows with deep undercurrents. The actors are splendid together and the lighting and music segues us into the soulful levels of the characters’ hearts. I particularly love the play’s concept of “apologia,” the noun meaning vindication, justification, explanation. For both of the sons and Kristin, there is an apologia. Of course none needs it more than Kristin. But it is Trudi who triggers Kristin’s finally laying down her defense, justification, explanation to others. For she must set her own forgiveness in motion for herself. At the end Channing’s cry is one of beauty, sorrow, grace, and at bottom, the courage to let go. Wonderful.
Kudos to Dane Laffrey (set design), Anita Yavich (costume design), Bradley King (lighting design), Ryan Rumery (original music and sound design). The premiere of APOLOGIA is at the Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (111 West 46 Street). It runs through 16 December. Visit the website for tickets.