The Woman Before
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
May 6, 2006
If, as psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes, “A couple is a conspiracy in search of a crime,” then a modicum of danger must exist in order to keep romance aflame. With danger present, the options are but few: two star-crossed lovers and the world set against them—every choice is life-or-death, every moment now-or-never, every promise forever. This rush—rapture—is not unlike inspiration; the successful mature relationship, which keeps the fugitive sense alive while its members craftily double as law-abiding citizens, is nothing less than an art.
Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Woman Before (now playing at HERE Arts Center as part of Stadttheater New York, in association with German Theater Abroad) shows what happens to one such pair of lovers, 20-or-so years after their summer romance: Frank has “gone straight”—marriage, family, home; Romy, seemingly unfazed by their years apart, arrives the night before he and his wife and son are moving into their suburban dream house, to lay claim to her old partner-in-crime. Her grounds: “You swore you’d love me forever. Now I’ve come to hold you to that promise.”
Frank is on the precipice of a new plateau of emotional maturity (making a renewed commitment to his marriage and family); Romy’s arrival is the relentless pulling-back, to succumb to the old gravity of a nearly-forgotten world. Like all vital art, this functions as both a literal story between two characters and an archetypal one, throwing paint on an inner conflict too often invisible to us. What Schimmelpfennig, David Tushingham (the play’s translator), and director Daniel Fish do extraordinarily well—and I have no complaints to temper my enthusiasm for this brief but intense evening of theatre—is to let loose the rage, showing just how our youthful ideas (and ideals) of passion will not go gentle into that grown-up goodnight.
No kitchen-sink-drama, The Woman Before, like its eponymous anti-heroine, is the enemy of such theatrical domesticity. The play loops around—ending scenes then beginning them, skipping through time and place like a restless student scouring a textbook for answers. Indeed, Christen Clifford, whose Romy is somewhere between a damsel-in-distress and fury incarnate, in one scene tears through the moving boxes stacked about the stage. With hands like chainsaws she rips them jagged, and this gutting takes a fascinating eternity. Clifford has the showy role here and knows what to do with it, but her success is equally due to the rest of the ensemble—Ronald Marx, Cynthia Mace, Jeremiah Miller, and Diana Ruppe (Frank, his wife, their son, and his girlfriend, respectively)—whose gentle and genuine normalcy is unable to fathom these violent emotions.
Scenographer Maive Lippman and lighting designer Peter West have created a suitably spooky environment—the no-man’s-land before any move where, unprotected by our familiar objects, we are most vulnerable to the bewilderment of uncertainty. This liminal space—where the past and the possible overlap—is the province of ghosts and visions. And, in an all-too-rare feat, The Woman Before leaves its audience sufficiently haunted: appreciative of our present security, but mournful of what we have lost. For, in the words of GK Chesterton, "It is of the new things that men tire—of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young."