The Countess

Gift Theatre Company

at Victory Gardens Theater

“We begin by telling the youth of fifteen or sixteen that Nature is full of faults, and that he is to improve her,” John Ruskin wrote critically of artists during his time. The same might be said of idealizing playwrights today: artistic license can be a dangerous thing, as Chicago theater audiences have learned in recent months. Brad Levinson in A Ritual of Faith, about the papal abduction and Christian conversion of a Jewish boy in 19th-century Italy, and Richard Greenberg in The Dazzle, about two eccentric brothers who barricaded themselves in the family mansion in Harlem, both ignored historical complexity in order to write neat, audience-friendly plays not half as interesting as the real-life stories they were based on. Now the Gift Theatre Company brings us another play in the same dubious tradition, Gregory Murphy’s off-Broadway hit The Countess, about the strained relations between painter John Everett Millais, critic Ruskin, and Ruskin’s wife, Effie. If Murphy had only heeded the aesthetic of the historical figures he set out to portray, he would never have overlooked the facts, however difficult and disturbing.

He also would not have ignored his characters’ histories. Millais was a child prodigy who entered London’s Royal Academy in 1840 at the age of 11, its youngest pupil ever. It wasn’t long before he was rebelling against what he perceived as the stale, formulaic work championed by the Academy. In 1848 he teamed up with fellow students Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt to form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a collective devoted to “truth to nature.” Rather than adhere to the idealized rules codified in the Renaissance artist Raphael, they would base their work on forms and figures found in the real world. The Pre-Raphaelites painted meticulously, with exacting attention to minute detail, and if such an honest gaze resulted in a less-than-graceful composition, such was the price paid for truth.

In their early years the Pre-Raphaelites were roundly criticized; Charles Dickens, for instance, dismissed Millais’ depiction of the young Jesus in Christ in the House of His Parents as “a hideous wry-necked blubbering boy.” But the group’s fortunes changed when John Ruskin–the “virtual dictator of artistic opinion in England,” as the Columbia Encyclopedia puts it–wrote a letter to the London Times defending their innovations. Soon afterward he authored an entire book championing the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

When Millais penned a letter of thanks to Ruskin, the critic took him under his wing, then made a fateful move: one day in 1853 he invited the artist to join him and his wife at their Scottish country home. Murphy opens his play at this point, and soon afterward the three are holed up on the moors, where Ruskin writes and proselytizes, Effie confesses the loveless state of her marriage to Millais, and Millais admits his devotion to her.

Murphy’s first act, which might be depicting any love triangle among upper-class Brits, would benefit from a Pre-Raphaelite overhaul. Rather than present detailed characters he creates amorphous figures entangled with one another before the audience has any reason to care about them. He gives us precious little sense of the history between Ruskin and Millais or of their assault on prevailing artistic standards: if you didn’t know better, you’d think the painter was a jaded dilettante with little to do but drop bons mots. It’s as though Murphy expects an audience to be immediately interested in any two actors wearing ascots and calling themselves “Ruskin” and “Millais.” He also charts his characters’ emotional changes in six largely interchangeable scenes when a single well-crafted one would have done the trick, and with no interruptions.

Still, Murphy’s sympathetic portrayals eventually enable us to care about the characters, and the moderately sordid comminglings between Millais and Effie make for an entertaining first act. And while the conventional script feels as though it were commissioned by Murphy’s teetotaling great-grandmother, director Maureen Payne-Hahner transforms the stiffness into a sense of decorum that keeps the characters straitjacketed within their social roles. Much of the production’s dramatic tension comes from the protagonists’ inability to express themselves or act in accordance with their desires–particularly ironic since these three are in the middle of nowhere.

Payne-Hahner doesn’t know how to end any of the act’s numerous scenes–each one stops abruptly with a blackout that feels premature. But she does know how to coach her actors, resulting in rich, nuanced relationships between them. As Ruskin, Benjamin Montague is dotty and unaccountably desperate, so immersed in his musings on hypothetical beauty that he overlooks his wife’s actual beauty, keeping a notebook filled with her many “imperfections.” Jenny Connell’s Effie is a fascinating mixture of despair and bullishness as she struggles to free herself from her husband’s dominance without defying the norms of Victorian respectability. And Brendan Donaldson turns in a surprisingly affecting performance as Millais, speaking in a near monotone and delivering every line with mannered matter-of-factness yet communicating torrents of passion.

Ultimately the first act is engaging but far more tidy than real life. In The Countess, Ruskin has never consummated his marriage because his wife doesn’t conform to the aesthetic standards he espouses. Perhaps this explanation has some validity, but it provides only a tenth the dramatic impact of the disquieting historical facts: Ruskin, who remained unnaturally close to his domineering Calvinist mother all his life, first fell for Effie–his cousin, by the way–when she was 12. By the time they married, she had physically matured and her body repulsed him. A few years after Effie had their marriage annulled, in 1854, the 39-year-old Ruskin flipped for a ten-year-old girl. And as any playwriting teacher will tell you, pedophilia born of mother worship is a much more intriguing character flaw than hyperbraininess.

In the second act, Murphy returns his characters to London, where he all but dispenses with Millais (unfortunately) and focuses on Effie’s struggle to leave her husband, a battle to transcend the limitations of her social place that’s powerfully conveyed: while Ruskin and his stuffed-shirt parents label her mentally ill, her confidante Lady Eastlake provides a healthy dose of feminist self-respect. One wishes Murphy had made her journey central from the opening scene–hers is the one situation he depicts with the kind of convincing detail her husband and lover would have applauded.