The two women at the heart of David Hare’s The Breath of Life, now onstage at South Camden Theatre Company, couldn’t live with Martin, their shared object of desire and cause of unyielding consternation. But now that he’s absconded to America with a new young paramour, leaving them in England to an uncertain middle age, they find they can’t live without him either.
So forms the sole conflict of this faux-intellectual pas de deux, which is given a handsomely designed but stiff production in Camden. Madeleine Palmer (Stacy Skinner) and Frances Beale (Julie Ann Marra) spend two interminable hours rehashing their long and painful associations with a man who repeatedly treated them like garbage for three decades.
The other women
It matters little that both women are accomplished in their respective fields. Madeleine, we’re told, is a world-renowned curator and expert on Islamic art, while Frances is a celebrated and successful novelist. Hare defines their individual identities, and their relationship to each other, through the lens of Martin—who was husband to the long-suffering Frances and lover to the longer-suffering Madeleine.
The identification is so deep that Frances has decided to renounce fiction writing in favor of memoir, the topic of which is her failed union. This switch prompts her visit to her former rival, who lives in self-imposed exile on the remote Isle of Wight. Needless to say, the play doesn’t come close to passing the Bechdel test.
The lack of female agency in a story that supposedly centers women is only one of its many flaws. As with his better-known Skylight, seen recently at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, Hare takes a rather glib approach to human relationships, suggesting depth through smart references and sharp asides while hardly skimming an emotional surface.
The man offstage
Throughout the plodding first act, Madeleine and Frances regularly use America and its citizens as a cheap byword for boorish behavior. Madeleine mocks television to show her sophistication, while Hare’s writing barely rises to a soap-opera level of acuity.
In the second act, structured as a literal dark night of the soul, the two women vacillate between their growing kinship and their still-simmering rivalry. Yet the locus of their shifting dynamics is still their absent shared spouse, so they are never allowed to come into their own, either individually or in terms of their relationships. Somehow the unseen Martin achieves more dimensionality than the corporeal Frances and Madeleine, who remain curiously flat.
An old story
A stronger production could have buffed these rough edges, but director Penelope Reed fails to imbue the proceedings with much tension or suspense. The actors tend to declaim their lines without much nuance, often while striking poses at the lip of Robert Bingaman’s well-appointed apartment set (Bingaman’s scenic design, along with Joshua Samors’s suggestive lighting, are the production’s best features). Marra occasionally strikes the right balance of sympathy and steel as Frances, but Skinner’s characterization of the caustic Madeleine stays surprisingly meek throughout.
The “other woman” story is an old one, as the characters admit to themselves, and Hare’s treatment adds little to the lineage besides male cluelessness. For all its sophisticated posturing, The Breath of Life is nothing but hot air.
What, When, Where
The Breath of Life. By David Hare. Directed by Penelope Reed. South Camden Theatre Company. Through September 28, 2019, at The Waterfront South Theatre, 400 Jasper Street, Camden, New Jersey. (866) 811-4111 or southcamdentheatre.org.
Accessibility: The Waterfront South Theatre is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Patrons with questions about accessible seating can call (866) 811-4111 during regular business hours.