DREAM OF A COMMON LANGUAGE, Cobalt Ensemble Theatre, at Chicago Dramatists. Heather McDonald's lyrical, intelligent play seems to be a modern fiction featuring historical figures--a mythobiography of late-19th-century women artists and the male artists who loved them but dismissed their work. Four friends meet at Clovis and Victor's country home for an art-school reunion designed to jump-start Victor's career and comfort Clovis, who's in the midst of a nervous breakdown. While the men organize an exhibit, the women stage their own encounter group in the garden, reawakening their ambitions and finding the courage to continue painting. The story of a friend's suicide--based on the life of Camille Claudel, a sculptor who collaborated without credit with Auguste Rodin--shows the alternative to self-assertion: isolation, madness, poverty, and death.
McDonald's complicated, blunt, and poetic script needs a light touch for the running metaphors to be as believable as the confrontational speeches. Director Katherine Condit-Ladd keeps the pace quick, but she pushes her performers into an overearnest realism, undercutting the script's expressionism and ritual rhythms. Still, Laura Bailey and Lynn Wirth have a steely heartiness as Clovis and Pola, the marginalized painters who embrace their own worth as artists. Produced on the heels of the Mary Cassatt retrospective, this worthy play uses feminist utopianism to reinvent history, hoping to inspire a more liberated present.