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This article by Joan Crespi was prepared for the February 19, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Drama Review: `The Countess’

John Ruskin, the foremost English art, architecture,

and social critic of his day, whose life spanned the Victorian Age

and 80 years of the 19th century, set forth original and startling

principles for art criticism. His personal life was even more unusual

and morphed into the diabolical. But it was his young wife’s legal

action that gave rise to the scandal that shocked proper Victorian

London in 1835 and beyond. This is the subject of "The Countess"

by Gregory Murphy, playing at Hopewell’s Off-Broadstreet Dessert Theater

through Saturday, March 15. Based on historical fact, the 1999 play

became a surprising success in New York, running Off-Broadway for

over 500 performances.

"The Countess" is akin to a movie script — its two acts

have 15 relatively short scenes, many with blackout endings. The action

all takes place in 1835. And the setting (except for Ruskin’s two

cameo lectures from a podium) is always the drawing room, whether

in Ruskin’s London home or the cottage in Scotland. The production

is skillfully directed by Robert Thick.

"The Countess" was the nickname of Euphemia Chalmers Gray,

Ruskin’s wife — known by all as Effie — a young woman of dignity

and beauty, rosy-cheeked and vibrant. The character is enchantingly

played by Jennifer East, even though, in some key scenes, there is

no hint of the sexual tension that is at the heart of the plot.

Ruskin is the highly respected but emotionally cold academic played

by Ed Teti. The third party in the play’s love triangle was the painter

John Everett Millais, portrayed by Walter E. Cupit. (Millais is said

to be have been impetuous, but isn’t so here.) Ten years younger than

Ruskin, Millais admired Ruskin for his defense of Millais’ own revolutionary

cadre of Pre-Raphaelite painters, a group that rebelled against the

artificial strictures of the Royal Academy and advocated returning

to nature as the source for painting. Millais, who later in life became

one of England’s most esteemed artists, painted the famous portrait

of Ruskin standing on Scotland’s craggy rocks beside a raging waterfall.

For background, Acts I and II each open with Ruskin lecturing briefly

on art criticism and we learn something of his advocacy of an esthetic

in which the moral perception of beauty was superior to the merely

sensuous. Ruskin believed that faith, education, morality, and healthy

social conditions were necessary for the creation of good art. He

is best remembered today as the champion of J.M.W. Turner’s evocative

Romantic seascapes.

The play begins in earnest with Ruskin’s resolve to take Effie and

Millais, who is painting Ruskin’s portrait, on a four-month holiday

in the Scottish Highlands. Ruskin’s stolid and self-righteous parents,

who dislike Effie, oppose taking along Millais. The pompous John Sr.,

lustily portrayed by Doug Kline, matches the haughty Margaret Ruskin,

played with sour believability by Lois Carr.

In the cottage in Scotland, over his wife’s objections, Ruskin deliberately

leaves Effie and Millais alone together. As he sketches Effie, Millais

expounds on his Pre-Raphaelite manifesto. When Millais kisses her;

she turns away, struggling to be a model wife. Ruskin is verbally

abusive to Effie in Millais’ presence, telling him such cruelty is

"necessary." Obviously masking his own failure, Ruskin schemes

further, telling Millais that Effie suffers anger and deep depression

and is mentally ill. "Effie thinks I leave her alone with other

men to compromise her," he tells the young artist.

Although Effie tells her husband that Millais may be in love with

her, Ruskin ignores this, too. Teaching Effie to sketch, Millais and

she are tete-a-tete, but the audience sees little sense of passion

or of Effie’s sexual frustration. It finally bursts out as Effie pleads

with Ruskin, telling him that "I am a woman after all!" In

the face of her husband’s frigidity, Effie finally yields to temptation.

She returns Millais’ kisses and, at his request, calls him for the

first time by his given name, Everett. She even tells Ruskin of her

love for Millais.

In the shorter second act, the group is back in London.

Margaret Ruskin proposes sending the unhappy Effie to a doctor who

specializes in nervous disorders; Effie, stronger now yet still believing

she is at fault, refuses to go. Still struggling to stay faithful

to Ruskin and conform to Victorian wifely behavior, she asks him to

take her away from his parents’ home; he refuses and cruelly insists

Effie return some of Millais’ sketches to the artist herself.

Millais, obviously sharing Victorian moral standards, is preparing

to absent himself from the Ruskins: he’ll go to Cairo to paint for

four years. In a penultimate scene, Effie’s friend and confidante

Lady Eastlake (Marianne Ahern) pries the secret out of Effie. The

secret of the Ruskin marriage? Ruskin has never consummated his marriage

to Effie, claiming that her body disgusted him. Effie tells Lady Eastlake

that on their wedding night, when he took off her nightgown, he discovered

she was "diseased." The disease? Although the play cannot

tell us, it was probably the presence of pubic hair. Lady Eastlake

assures Effie, "There is nothing wrong with you!"

Effie, stronger knowing the truth, leaves Ruskin and has him served

with annulment papers. He admits having failed to consummate the marriage

to his parents; after a moment’s shock, they stand by him, sticking

to the cover-up story that Effie is mad.

Ruskin fell in love with Effie when she was 12, married her when she

was nearly 20. Like Lewis Carroll, he is said to have been attracted

to prepubescent girls. Later in life he became infatuated with nine-year-old

Rose LaTouche and tried to marry her when she came of age.

On opening night some of the dialogue of the fast-talking characters

was lost, but this will no doubt be remedied after the first performances.

(OBT opens without any previews.) As the characters work together,

the story will become more electric. Thank Patricia Hibben for glorious

costumes on the women, particularly the long, wide skirted dresses

on trim-waisted Effie and on Lady Eastlake.

There’s irony in the brilliant intellectual Ruskin admiring beauty

in art, but not in the flesh of a grown woman. Perhaps Ruskin’s dilemma

is best summed up in his words, most suited to the Venus de Milo:

"Bachelors marry goddesses, husbands marry women."

— Joan Crespi

The Countess, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood

Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766. Fridays to Sundays to March 15. $22.50

& $24.

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