I don’t know what exactly brought Franz Lehar’s 1905 operetta “Die Lustige Witwe” (translated from the German as “The Lusty Widow” but more commonly known in the English-speaking world as “The Merry Widow”) to mind as I was watching Thom Thomas’s immensely entertaining play, “A Moon To Dance By,” now playing through Sunday, December 13, at George Street Playhouse. But I can attest to with assurance that Lehar’s adored heroine doesn’t hold a candle to Thomas’s heroine. When it comes to the joyous containment of lust and/or merriment, Jane Alexander wins hands down in her sensually ripe portrayal of Thomas’s real-life German-born heroine and widow Frieda Lawrence (nee von Richthofen).
Yes, Frieda was the cousin of the German pilot known as “the red baron”) but more famously known as the mistress and then wife of author D.H. Lawrence and the inspiration for the women in his novels (Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Women in Love, Sons and Lovers, etc.) Frieda was married to Ernest Weekley, a professor at Nottingham University, when she deserted him and her 12-year-old son, Monty, and his two sisters in 1912 to be with Lawrence.
But Thomas’s play is only indirectly concerned with Frieda’s relationship with Lawrence, whom she married in 1914 shortly after her divorce. It focuses on her affair with Angelo Ravagli (Robert Cuccioli), her devoted and much younger but just as hot-blooded Italian lover, and also with her long-estranged, stiff-necked, British-raised 39-year-old son Monty Weekley (Gareth Saxe). What a combustible and contrasted trio they make in a play that speculates very perceptively about a meeting between these otherwise very real people. Lawrence, who died in 1930 at the rather young age of 45, actually initiated and encouraged Frieda’s affair with Angelo after he had become impotent.
The play takes place at the Lawrence ranch near Taos, New Mexico. The year is 1939. Monty, now married with children, has come from England to effect if not a reconciliation then a personal coming-to-terms with his mother as well as with his long pent-up feelings of hate and abandonment. War clouds are forming and there is the possibility that Frieda and her Italian lover, officially aliens, will be under the scrutiny of the allies.
However scorned by Victorian society for her behavior, Frieda remained, however, true to her nature, being in a virtual state of perpetual ecstasy for living life as she wanted and for loving whom she pleased without regrets. Has the time at last come when she might be able to re-bond with the nevertheless openly hostile and resentful Monty? And is her fulfilled impassioned life with Angelo threatened by separation because of the impending war?
The playwright considers this episode in Frieda’s life at a time that is ripe for speculation and marked by uncertainty. Middle-aged Frieda is as ferociously committed to her passions in middle age as ever and we see her as an unapologetically sensuous and free-spirited woman. Alexander, who first shot to prominence and received a Tony Award in 1968 for Broadway’s “The Great White Hope,” is unquestionably seductive in the role.
Alexander’s distinguished career subsequently on stage, in films, and on TV is also notable for being married to “The Great White Hope” director Ed Sherin. Sherin is at the helm again and has inspired a performance by Alexander that (as the title infers) is as luminous as the moon that shines above the three emotionally volatile people in designer Stephanie Mayer-Staley’s lovely patio-on-the-desert setting (atmospherically lit by Andrew David Ostrowski). Affecting a slight German accent, Alexander is near to heartbreaking as she tries to break the ice with Monty by furtive embraces and earnest explanations for her desertion. Even more exciting to watch is the way Alexander responds in kind to Angelo’s rages and then playfully lures him into submission with her beckoning charm.
Saxe, who recently portrayed Hamlet for the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, uses a refined British accent to support Monty’s rigidity and his seemingly inflexible nature. But Monty’s armor is bound to be cracked, and through Saxe’s complexly revealed portrayal, we see the full force of his unleashed anguish. Notwithstanding that Angelo is the most level-headed and humor-endowed of the three, the mustachioed Cuccioli affords us the opportunity to see the good-looking lover as a stabilizing force and as Frieda’s equal in all things pertinent and passionate. With its bracingly portrayed, well-defined characters within a literate and lilting text, “A Moon To Dance By” is a good bet for life above and beyond New Jersey.
The play received its East Cost premiere in February of this year at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. This production is having its New Jersey premiere.
“A Moon To Dance By,” through Sunday, December 13, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $37.50 to $71.50. 732-846-2895 or www.GSPonline.org.