Like its title and the theater company it birthed, Berkeley writer Dorothy Bryant's play, Dear Master, is both precious and grand.
Based on letters exchanged between 19th century French novelists George Sand and Gustave Flaubert, the ninety-minute one-act play inspired the late Barbara Oliver to found the Aurora Theatre Company — where she served as the first artistic director — in 1991, along with Marge Glicksman, Richard Rossi, and Ken Grantham.
Dear Master opens Aurora's 25th anniversary season this year and features Kimberly King as Sand (whose real name was Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin) and Michael Ray Wisely as Flaubert, Sand's nearly twenty-years-junior counterpart. Award-winning actor and director Joy Carlin directs the warm, at times fiery, portrayal of the famous literary figures whose correspondence touched themes from small, such as coughs and closed-minded critics, to large: politics, art, beauty, love, and family. The two writers found commonality in their love of writing. And their divergent perspectives about politics, family, human nature, and the possibility of hope or true love added essential bite and liveliness to their letters. A platonic male-female relationship, rendered and preserved on paper with respect and vigorous debate traveling in both directions, was — and remains — remarkable for the era.
Bryant constructs a sturdy internal structure based on the writers' thirteen-year correspondence. Titled with Flaubert's nickname for Sand and taking their words beyond real life to "things they might have said," the script avoids over-capitalizing on Sand's feminist positions or scandalous affairs with Chopin and other lovers. Meanwhile, Flaubert's habit of ranting at reviewers and narcissistically tail-chasing his inner-demons is balanced with bursts of humanity — devotion to his mother and admiration for Sand the most obvious. The characterizations are drawn with wry humor that, in a performance during the play's opening week, endeared an audience to Sand's and Flaubert's sometimes-obsessive ruminations.
Wisely was effectively blustery, but showed awareness by reining in Flaubert's cranky complaints before they became annoying. So too was King's staunch portrayal, which rose to spiritedness, especially in scenes when she spoke of women as "slaves to fantasy," or described the thrill of dressing in men's clothing, or insisted that Flaubert not "deny me my right to suffer" over political and family matters. For viewers unfamiliar with France's history, or people who misguidedly believe their 21st century lives have little to do with Napoleon, revolutions, or class warfare, Sand's and Flaubert's arguments and agreements about unfair wealth distribution, the people's power and citizens' and feminists' rights will ring a bell. It's eye opening and mildly (if not deeply) disturbing to be reminded that society's greatest stumbling blocks are centuries old and ocean crossing. Such is the role of art and theater, even if only to invigorate us for continued protest.
Unfortunately, a tendency to pair increased volume or strained vocalization with the play's most passion-filled, critical lines reduced their profundity. Whether due to Carlin's direction, actors' choices, or both, Flaubert's bitterest diatribes and Sand's intense, idealistic pronouncements were well-written lines that would have been more effective with gentler, more nuanced delivery.
The onset of the Franco-Prussian War, accompanied by flashing red lights and bombastic sounds that seemed cliché, was the one misstep in otherwise impressive lighting by Kent Dorsey. Annie Smart's plush set design divided the Aurora's intimate stage by color — the actors observing and for the most part never crossing an "invisible line" between their worlds. Flaubert's half-portion was earth-toned and dominated by a bear skin rug on which Wisely sprawled. Sand's was filled with the golds and greens of sunshine and trees: a suitable parallel to her determined optimism and fondness for the outdoors. Windows overhead — his, rectangular/blunt cut; hers, curved/organic — were a clever touch.
Dear Master was presented 25 years ago by an ad hoc group of actors in the troupe's original digs, a 67-seat parlor room in the Berkeley City Club. Revived in 2016 in Aurora's 150-seat home venue on Addison Street in downtown Berkeley, it serves as a reminder of how a tiny, temporal piece of theatre became a substantial bedrock for one of the Bay Area's most respected theater companies. Fondness and formality, closeness and distance, preciousness and grandness, and change and permanence, are the essence of the play — and the venerable Aurora.