“The Breath of Life”: Boomer regrets

In David Hare's play at Portland Center Stage, Gretchen Corbett and Julia Brothers deal with loss and fear

If I were going to guess (and I suppose I am), I’d suggest that the moment Boomers in the audience will react to most immediately, probably with a snort, comes near the start of the first scene after intermission in David Hare’s 2002 play, “The Breath of Life.”

“The enemies of the bourgeois, isn’t that what we called ourselves?,” asks Madeleine, now in her sixties, still working, and still true to her leftish politics. “And how did it turn out?”

These aren’t real questions. Madeleine continues: “The obituary of my generation. We left no loft unconverted. The revolutionary project: to leave the world a little more chic than we found it. Future historians will write: ‘these are the people who took the world one notch up-market.’”

Julia Brothers, left, and Gretchen Corbett in David Hare’s “The Breath of Life” at Portland Center Stage/Photo by Kate Szrom

Right. “We left no loft unconverted.” In Portland we might say, “We invented the Pearl District.” Or: “We planted million dollar condos on North Williams.”

Madeleine and Frances, the only two characters in the play, exchange a few more lines, and then Madeleine again:

“We imagined we were protesting Vietnam. Looking back it seems like some us were protesting their own future. A rare moment of prescience. A short carnival of revolt before the long luxury of self-improvement. Five years of protest. Thirty of acquiescence.”

This is Hare at his best, really. Sharp, acerbic, funny, keen to the dilemmas of his generation (which also happens to be mine), of the failures of politics, religion, the American empire, and then the wreckage of regret they, we, have left behind. Other Hare plays may be more satisfying as a whole—maybe “Plenty,” “Racing Demon” or “Skylight”—but “The Breath of Life” is a nicely concentrated dose of Hare. (He’s also good at thrillers: “Collateral” on Netflix is a fine case in point.)

Although the production of “The Breath of Life” at Portland Center Stage was disrupted right before opening night when Sharonlee McLean, who was set to play Frances, dropped out of the show, it has found sure footing with Julia Brothers, who is now starring alongside Gretchen Corbett’s Madeleine.

Frances is a difficult assignment because she doesn’t change much during the course of the play: She moves from suppressed distress to a position of slightly less distress. (If he were in front of me right now, I’d ask Hare why he decided to do Frances like that, and he’d probably roll his eyes.) Brothers gives her a sense of dignity, even resolve and even toughness, which she needs in order to deal with Madeleine. Corbett’s performance as Madeleine registers the more substantial change she’s going to have. She’s going to spar vigorously with Frances, interrogate and challenge her, and then…well, she’s heading toward some kind words for her at the end. And that’s going to take a catharsis of sorts. What does Corbett bring to the role? I’ll just say, “intensity,” “presence,” “toughness,” “vulnerability.” Your descriptors may vary.

The basics: Frances is a novelist with two grown children, about whom we learn almost nothing, maybe because Frances is so obsessed with her ex-husband Martin. Martin has fallen in love with a younger American woman and moved with her to a glass house on an estuary in Seattle. Madeleine, Frances has discovered rather late in her marriage to Martin, was Martin’s longtime lover, and Frances is trying to get her head and heart around Martin, Madeleine and her future when she shows up at Madeleine’s place on the Isle of Wight. Or Isle of Black, as Madeleine calls it. Madeleine is going to be difficult to enlist in Frances’s healing program, as you might imagine.

On the other hand, Madeleine isn’t closing the door on Frances, either, mostly because we discover that her position on Martin isn’t entirely settled itself. She’s certainly eager to hear Frances’s account of the marital arguments with Martin, and especially what Martin said about Madeleine. Especially. That’s because Martin’s view of Madeleine and Madeleine’s view of herself are aligned: They both think Madeleine has insisted on her independence, insisted on refusing to compromise, insisted on pursuing her politics even when it didn’t look as though things were truly going to change. Cue the “no loft left converted” speech. And that all these positions are the logical conclusions of her principles.

Julia Brothers and Gretchen Corbett in David Hare’s “The Breath of Life” at Portland Center Stage/Photo by Kate Szrom

In their philosophical back-and-forth, Frances is left arguing the importance of daily life, small kindnesses, devotion to children and family and friends. But what they gradually discover is that despite their differences, they’ve ended up in the same sort of place, not the Isle of Wight, exactly, but that place so many Boomers find themselves, past middle-age but still quite active. And in this time, reveries about the past, the regrets and losses, become more common, too: How do we move past the regret and embrace the present, not to mention the future? “The Breath of Life” isn’t direct about this, but it is nonetheless eloquent. And no, Madeleine isn’t Liberty leading us to the barricades. She’s something more human than that, someone who has acted on fear herself, not just principles.

I’m attempting to be a bit abstract about this just because you’ll want to make your own connections among the plot points of the play and the character of the women involved (not to mention Martin, which apparently we must do over and over again!). Boomers are now living through their time for meditating on their regrets, Hare suggests, and maybe that sort of meditation needs company.

Two more small points?

As Hare sets it up, Madeleine and Frances are two women who don’t want to be defined by a man/Martin, but they spend a vast amount of time talking about him, even after they agree not to talk about him anymore. This is going to rub some people the wrong way. It already has. I even had a twinge or two about it, and I’d concluded after reading the play that it was just possible that Martin wasn’t a complete villain. But deep down I suppose I believe that our partners (and so many others) do define us, if incompletely,  and shape our lives in significant ways, that we tend to emphasize and valorize the individual over the social (an important point for Hare), and that Hare’s politics are more nuanced and profound than this particular structure might indicate here in 2019. He’s definitely not an anti-feminist. Feel free to disagree in the comments section!

The second is a style point. “The Breath of Life” is “traditional” in some important ways: It’s basically a simple, one-set, very well-written play enacted by actors willing to invest in making its ideas (and one-liners) come to life in a “natural” way. That natural way I’d call “Altman-esque” because of its emotional flow, its stream of words and flickering consciousness, and its delivery.

Corbett’s performance is emblematic here: She’s not punching up every other word nor busily underlining key moments with big expressionistic gestures. She’s giving us asides and parentheticals and smaller physical responses. She trusts the audience to muster the attention needed to catch the fish in this more watery approach. If you’re like me, you still might be landing some good-sized ones the day after the show. And here, it’s appropriate to mention director Ken Rus Schmoll, who has shaped this play of language, emotion and ideas so that it flows smoothly and effortlessly.

Gretchen Corbett and Julia Brothers in “The Breath of Life” at Portland Center Stage/Photo by Kate Szrom

This style of theater (and dance) has mostly been replaced by a different kind of performance, which has its own charms and drawbacks, or so it seems to me. But that’s a subject for another day.

David Hare’s “The Breath of Life” continues at Portland Center Stage, Wednesdays through Sundays, through June 16.

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