Autobiography in the theater is a dangerous business. Telling the story of your life while an audience, who paid a hefty admission, sits silently in the dark and listens can create a lot of resentment: people are not always kind to those who set themselves loftily apart. On the other hand, we do have a need to share our stories with one another, whether through cave paintings, romantic novels, or three-minute pop songs.
In short, turning your life into a play can make you seem intolerably haughty or invitingly human. Le Clanche du Rand, in her one-woman show Hysterics, moves back and forth between these extremes. Though her 90-minute piece ultimately achieves a warmth and emotional honesty rare in any art form, first it must climb down off a pedestal of its own making.
Du Rand is undeniably a first-rate writer. Her concise, eloquent story begins with her childhood as an Afrikaner in rural South Africa, then proceeds through her marriage to an American businessman and eventual career as an actress and drama therapist. Though her sparse prose makes a few sections a bit sketchy, especially the story of her introduction to American culture, its simplicity makes some moments stand out in high relief. During her first visit to an American supermarket (comfortingly named "Safeway"), she becomes so overwhelmed in the canned-vegetable aisle by all the brands and styles of tomatoes, not to mention the can sizes, that she runs into the parking lot and throws up.
Du Rand has a real ability to select what are presumably real-life incidents with metaphorical significance. The canned tomatoes neatly encapsulate the American detachment from and domination of nature, which in our thirst for convenience we package and sanitize: unprocessed tomatoes never enter the picture. The American attitude is in sharp contrast to what du Rand learned in Africa from her caretaker: Daisy taught her that all of nature, even discarded fingernails, possess a kind of spiritual integrity. The contrast between these two worldviews, painted in idiosyncratic detail, forms the emotional core of the piece, as du Rand tries to create a spiritual haven for herself in a land where, as Daisy laments, "no one watches over your spirit."
Du Rand's material is strong, but her relationship to it is problematic, at least during the first half of the piece. Sometimes she tells her stories in a detached, almost formal manner, speaking not to us or even at us but above us, literally directing her focus over our heads. She downplays her emotional connection to the material so much that she seems to be reciting someone else's words. The result is a disappointingly cold performance.
But at other times du Rand tries to forge such a strong connection to her words that the effect is nearly melodramatic. Instead of simply telling us what happened, she often attempts to re-create a scene, relying on "acting" rather than honest story telling. When she and Daisy say their final farewells, for instance, du Rand plays the scene as an oral interpreter might, looking in different directions to indicate each character, playing the pain of the moment. While the scene is quite beautifully written, her presentation makes it almost hokey, dependent on held-back tears that can't help but seem well rehearsed.
Unfortunately Northlight's presentation of Hysterics adds even more distance. Two effusive program notes describe the work with all the subtlety of a used-car salesman (we too may consider du Rand "one of the most powerful stage actresses in America" because of her "incredible skill as an actress"). Designer Stephen R. White has placed an imposing leather chair center stage for her, with a slick black end table next to it--furniture that seems pulled from the boardroom of a Fortune 500 corporation, suggesting power and self-importance. Further, the chair sits not at the downstage edge of the space but several yards back, so du Rand is separated from the audience by a gulf of darkness. This monumentalizes her, inhibiting her ability to include her audience in her experiences.
Yet during the last section of Hysterics she does bridge this gap, in part because she shifts into a different kind of material: in the last half hour or so du Rand retells the harrowing story of her hysterectomy, with its harsh lessons in mortality. Up to this point she'd focused on the things that set her apart from us: her life in Africa, her unfamiliarity with American culture, her career in the movies. During the final section she focuses instead on the kind of event that could happen to anyone. Finally she seems one of us.
It was only at that point that describing du Rand as "one of the most powerful stage actresses in America" came to seem truly inappropriate. Whether she can act is beside the point. Indeed, her acting tends to stand in her way. When she finally lets go of it and simply speaks from the heart, the effect is magical. The dignity and strength that emerge through her telling of this horrifying experience is a testament to the human spirit, reminding us why we continually come together to hear one another's stories.