The Secret Rapture

Remy Bumppo

at Victory Gardens Theater

For evil to triumph, Edmund Burke said, it is necessary only for good men to do nothing. But David Hare’s view, as articulated in Remy Bumppo’s excellent production of The Secret Rapture, is that for evil to triumph it is necessary only for good people to do–good.

Hare is a George Bernard Shaw for our time: an intellectual socialist whose work gets criticized as “talky” because it contains ideas and “doctrinaire” because those ideas are left-wing. But Shaw’s time must have been more hopeful than the present, because his work was fundamentally exuberant. Whether critiquing class prejudice or war capitalism or relations between the sexes, it’s clear the playwright thought things could actually change for the better.

Whereas Hare’s work, as robust as it is intellectually, carries a whiff of being a loser’s complaint about how the bad guys have won. More, it often includes an assessment of how and why they will always win–a sort of anatomy of catastrophe. It’s a position both infuriating and understandable given his flowering in Thatcherian England. Hare diagnoses problems brilliantly, connecting politics to personal morality in unexpected ways, but when it comes to thinking about solutions he just throws up his hands.

In The Secret Rapture, his central character, Isobel, is a martyr to her own principles: that family is more important than commerce, and that no one should be left behind. As a result she’s easily manipulated by everyone who has the remotest claim on her love or attention. When she finally stands up against one effort at manipulation it’s in the service of another, as though her only choices were versions of victimization.

As the play opens, Isobel is grieving the death of her father, and before his body is even removed from the stage Hare and director James Bohnen have established that her ordinary human kindness is enough to infuriate and goad everyone around her. They fear Isobel’s judgment, as well they might: they’re out-and-out dreadful. Sister Marion is an official in the Tory government–Hare needs hardly say more, but he does, having her steal a ring in the opening scene moments after it’s been removed from her father’s corpse. Marion then proceeds to trash Katherine, the father’s alcoholic trophy wife, as a gold digger, and Isobel not only defends her but ends up offering her a job. Everything goes downhill from there, as Katherine and Marion team up to destroy Isobel’s graphic design business and her relationship with her partner-lover, Irwin. In its agonizing inevitability the play’s progress is like a car accident caught in slow motion.

But underneath the individual disaster Hare is working out a broader theme: what constitutes betrayal, and who exactly is betraying whom? Is it Marion and Katherine who betray Isobel? Or Irwin? Or Isobel herself? This is a very smart play about the consequences–to couples, to families, and to societies–of individual virtue.

In this very smart production, Bohnen maintains the balance Hare himself strikes between Isobel’s apparent rightness and the legitimacy of everyone else’s claims on her: he even shows the brittle Marion her share of sympathy. The actors resist every temptation to stereotype their characters, going beyond the text to convey the nuances of sexual tension and of the scraping misery when marital love disappears. Kati Brazda, who bears a striking physical resemblance to Jodie Foster, gives a performance that draws on a likewise similar arsenal of acting tools: intelligence, naturalism and the ability to be still, coupled with a certain inaccessibility that might be coldness or just reserve. It works brilliantly with Isobel, a latter-day Saint Joan for whom right trumps loving or joyful.

While Brazda’s performance is pivotal, the success of the production rests on the first-rate work of the ensemble. The men are very good, but the play belongs to the women: Susan Bennett makes the destructive Katherine comprehensible and genuinely touching, while Laura Fisher keeps Marion from being a cartoon villain (except for a single scene in which Hare gratuitously requires her to ridicule the Green Party). Lisa Stevens’s costumes–Isobel’s frumpy pants and shirts, Marion’s tailored suits, Katherine’s glamorous gowns–impeccably evoke the characters’ personalities, amplifying the work of playwright, director, and actors without drowning it out. By contrast, Tim Morrison’s sets are beautiful, but at least early in the run they required too much time to set up, interfering with Bohnen’s crisp pacing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Karen Hoyt.