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It's the memories that matter in The North China Lover

As the nostalgic narrator, Deanna Dunagan outshines the central action in Heidi Stillman's Lookingglass Theatre Company adaptation.

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When the French writer Marguerite Duras died in 1996, at age 81, she left behind more than 50 novels, plays, and screenplays. It probably helped her productivity that she didn't mind repeating herself (or that a lot of her books are really short). The North China Lover—now onstage at Lookingglass Theatre Company in an intriguing but tepid adaptation by Heidi Stillman—was the last published version of a story that pops up several times in Duras's work. It's there in her first successful novel, The Sea Wall (1950), and there again in The Lover, the 1984 international best seller for which she's best known today.

The real-life events that prompted all this spilled ink make up what sounds like a pretty seamy chapter in the author's childhood in French Indochina, where her parents were schoolteachers until her father died and her mother took up farming, with financially disastrous results. In most versions of the story, an impoverished, pubescent Duras stand-in meets an older Chinese man on the ferry from Sa Dec to Saigon, and the two of them embark on an affair that today we would call statutory rape.

With each iteration of the story, he gets wealthier, taller, and more handsome, she gets more knowing and sensuous, and their lovemaking becomes a source of joy for both of them. Duras lets the tale drift into the foggy, dreamlike realms of memory and imagination until it's part incantation, part myth.

The North China Lover was Duras's preemptive attack against the 1992 film version of The Lover, which she was involved in adapting until she had a falling out with the director. She had plenty of cinema experience in her own right—both as a screenwriter (most notably Alain Renais's Hiroshima Mon Amour) and as a director (India Song and other experimental works)—and wanted to tell the story her own way. So this is an unusual hybrid of novel and screenplay. There are notes for the cinematographer and soundtrack composer ("In the film, we won't give the waltz a name"), and much of the narration reads like stage directions. Some of these are easy enough for actors to follow—"The child goes slowly to the car"—but others are a little more abstract: "He enters the black night of the child's body" (gross).

To convey this aspect of the book onstage, Stillman makes the wise choice of inserting a narrator called M, who's modeled on the mature Duras. Narrators are commonly used as crutches in page-to-stage adaptations, but in this case M adds a degree of depth to what would otherwise be a lesser Lolita.

As in the book, this isn't just the story of a love affair; it's also about a writer recalling and reshaping events across a chasm of time. "She remembers," M says. "She is the last to remember. She still hears the sound of the sea in the room. And she remembers having written that." (The English translation is by Leigh Hafrey.)

Stillman has made another wise choice in casting Deanna Dunagan as M. Dunagan excels at playing elegant, eloquent egomaniacs, and Duras was certainly one of those. We only see flashes of that side of her, though. In Dunagan's performance, M seems less in control of the past than in thrall to it.

A long, shattering monologue about the girl's last glimpses of her lover reminded me of a scene in Philip Roth's final Nathan Zuckerman novel, Exit Ghost. Encountering again a character who first appeared in The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman realizes that the woman's entire life has been defined by one episode. "I stopped myself from saying 'Was everything that followed crushed by those few years?'" he thinks, "because the answer was obvious by now. Everything, every last thing." Especially in the play's final moments, Dunagan movingly captures the same sense of having been overpowered by the past.

In Stillman's fluid staging, a pitch-black set, designed by Daniel Ostling, is illuminated by solitary pools of light, evoking both the candlelit quality of memory and the minimalism of Duras's prose. The darkness that surrounds the performers also supplies a kind of visual equivalent to the silences hemming in and sometimes threatening to swallow up their words.

Unfortunately, what happens on the periphery is more interesting than what's supposed to be the main attraction: the affair of "the lover" and "the child," played by Tim Chiou and Rae Gray. Chiou certainly looks the part (which is pretty much all that's required of him), and Gray has a knack for wry line readings. But their dealings with one another feel remote and unconvincing, mostly because Gray is tasked with playing the sort of virginal yet world-weary teenager who we can buy on the page but who comes across as artificial in three dimensions. The affair presented here hardly seems worth obsessing over for 50 years. Stillman vividly portrays the act of remembering, but the central action is oddly forgettable.

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