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“Sleeping Beauty” Rises and Doesn’t Quite Shine

A new Irish play debuts at the Miniature Theatre

The timing couldn’t have been more unintentionally timely. “So Long, Sleeping Beauty” opened at the Miniature Theatre of Chester just days after James McGreevey announced he had been having an adulterous homosexual affair and would step down as governor of New Jersey.

A public man with a carefully hidden private life. A man whose equilibrium depended on a discreet balancing act between duty and passion. That describes the figure at the center of Isobel Mahon’s play, too. That man never appears on stage, but he’s a constant presence for the play’s two characters, his wife and his lover.

After Maurice, a prominent lawyer, dies in a car wreck, his wife Glynnis discovers a packet of love letters he had received, over many years, from another man. Her first impulse is to burn them, but ultimately she contacts her rival and meets him in a Dublin park, not only to return the letters but to try to make sense of it all.

In Bairbre Dowling’s sensitive and restrained performance, you can see Glynnis struggling to understand her compromised marriage, her husband’s need to have a double life, and her own unwitting role in enabling it. The sudden knowledge of her husband’s 18-year affair of the heart brings her 30-year marriage of convenience into perspective. While she was defined by her public marriage, her husband’s true self lay in a private hiding place.

“So Long, Sleeping Beauty” was first written as a monologue for radio. The character of the lover, Neville, was added for the stage version, but he’s still a secondary presence. The focus is still mainly on Glynnis, waking up from her long oblivious slumber. Emory Van Cleve’s Neville is a diffident fellow. He speaks hesitantly, neatly dressed in a sober suit, sitting stiffly on the park bench, his rolled umbrella between his knees.

Both Dowling’s and Van Cleve’s performances are affecting. We can see the characters’ pain and confusion through their polite, careful interaction. But Glynnis and Neville are both such repressed, civilized people that there’s no friction, no real conflict in the play. It’s a one-hour conversation that begins haltingly, but too soon warms into an open-hearted exchange.

In this sense, “Sleeping Beauty” is not a drama but a mutual exploration—two people groping toward acceptance of their mutual loss. The playwright, who is also an actress, is a trained psychiatrist as well, and I was surprised that the arc of her play didn’t traverse a wider range of emotional responses to this painful meeting between two people with valid and conflicting claims to this man’s time and affection.

Every performance of this brief play’s American premiere at the Miniature is followed by a talkback session led by director Vincent Dowling. The night I saw it, the responses focused on the missing figure in this unconventional love triangle, the dead husband. Was he the victim of social circumstances that bound him to a conventional but sterile marriage and kept his true heart closeted? Or was he a manipulative coward who found it more convenient and comfortable to give only part of himself to his wife and his lover?

But “So Long, Sleeping Beauty” is essentially about Glynnis’s journey. In fact, all of the Miniature Theatre’s productions in the 2004 season have focused on women striving to define themselves apart from a man’s needs and expectations. Despite its flaws, this play is classic Miniature Theatre, a company that puts intelligent, literate material into the hands of consummate actors and engages the imaginations of thoughtful theatergoers.

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