Wright State University returns to sophisticated fare with a beautifully executed regional premiere of Lillian Groag’s semi-autobiographical, thought-provoking Argentinean drama “The Magic Fire.”
Commissioned and originally produced in 1997 by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the engrossing, highbrow “Magic Fire” concerns a close-knit family of European immigrants living in Buenos Aires circa 1952 during the divisive Juan Peron regime. As chaos consumes the streets with ever-present military force, the argumentative, opinionated, opera-adoring Bergs are reticent to join the fray, opting instead to safeguard themselves within their own private world of culture and music they hope cannot be vanquished. The symbolism of their behavior and the play’s title astutely mirrors the final act of Richard Wagner’s opera “Die Walküre,” specifically Wotan’s decision to encircle his sleeping daughter Brünnhilde with an artificial wall of fire that only the bravest of men can penetrate. However, when the brother of the family’s housekeeper seeks shelter in their home, it becomes impossible to ignore the political turmoil swirling in their midst.
Groag’s poetic, female-driven look at differing generations and changing times is simultaneously endearing and confusing in its scope. Her decision to conceive the material as a nearly three-hour memory play lends itself to numerous moments of heartfelt earnestness and subtle grandeur, but the key reason why narrator/protagonist Lise (Layan Elwazani) looks back on her life is muddled. In Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” one of the greatest memory plays, disillusioned Tom is kicked out of his home by his domineering mother only to be haunted by the memory of his fragile sister, prompting him to reflect. Here, it is a mystery why Lise so emphatically desires nostalgia. Nonetheless, despite conceptual flaws including an abundance of overlapping arcs, director Lee Merill supplies elegant stage pictures bolstered by her innate grasp of classical music and superbly evocative assistance from lighting designer Samantha Jelinek.
The aforementioned Elwazani is an emotionally strong focal point seamlessly weaving in and out of the flashbacks shaped around the events of Lise’s seventh birthday. She also establishes a gentle kinship with the adorably precocious Ally Miller, who portrays young Lise with tenderness and feistiness. As Otto Berg, Lise’s father who fled Nazi-occupied Austria, Mathys Herbert excellently grasps the character’s pivotal choices and deep affection for opera. DeLee Cooper (who also choreographs) is a genial presence as Amalia, Otto’s dutiful wife. Mimi Klipstine completely satisfies as diva Elena Guarneri, Amalia’s actress-sister out of work because she refuses to support Peron. Tommy DiMassimo vigorously inhabits Gianni “Juan” Guarneri, Amalia’s passionate father. Kristina Hopkins is perfectly tipsy as Paula Guarneri, Amalia’s aunt. The terrifically expressive Alyssa Brembeck charms as 98-year-old Mussolini-hating matriarch Maddalena Guarneri, who arrived in Argentina with her husband in 1890. The handsome Stephen Kell is fittingly authoritative and enigmatic as General Henri Fontannes, a Peron loyalist and neighbor of the Bergs specifically drawn to young Lise. Logan Torbet is firm and fiery as newspaper publisher Alberto Barcos, who despises Peron and therefore loathes Henri. Jasmine Easler brings quiet dignity and a no-nonsense sensibility to her role as housekeeper Rosa Arrua. Diana Frankhauser (Clara Stepaneck), Julia Gomez (Leila) and Julian Rojas (Santa Arrua) are noteworthy. Taylor Hinkle portrays young Lise at certain performances. Merrill’s first-rate artistic team includes costumer David J. Castellano, scenic designer Lydia Watson (filling the revolving stage with trunks and crates suggesting a family on the move), sound designer James Dunlap, and dialect coach Deborah Thomas.
In related news, WSU’s 40th anniversary 2014-15 season will consist of “Fences” (Sept. 18-28, co-directed by W. Stuart McDowell and Sheila Ramsey), “Hot Mikado” (Oct. 23-Nov. 9, directed by Greg Hellems with choreography by Teressa Wylie McWilliams), “Romeo and Juliet” (Nov. 14-23, directed by Sandra Crews in the Herbst Theatre) “Pride and Prejudice” (Jan. 29-Feb. 8, directed by Marya Spring Cordes), the musical “Peter Pan” (Mar. 19-Apr. 5, directed by Joe Deer and starring Bruce Cromer as Captain Hook), and the local premiere of “Sondheim on Sondheim” (Apr. 17-26, directed by Jamie Cordes in the Herbst Theatre).
“The Magic Fire” continues through Feb. 9 in the Festival Playhouse of the Creative Arts Center at Wright State University, 3640 Col. Glenn Hwy., Fairborn. Performances are Feb. 5 and 6 at 7 p.m., Feb. 7 and 8 at 8 p.m., and Feb. 8 and 9 at 2 p.m. Act One: 1 hour and 50 minutes; Act Two: 45 minutes. Tickets are $22 for adults and $20 seniors and students. For tickets or more information, call the WSU box office at (937) 775-2500.