Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Directed by Stuart Bousel
Custom Made Theatre Company delivers a knock-out production of Passion, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s hidden gem of obsessive love, highlighted by a heart-wrenching, luminous performance by Heather Orth as the sickly, tormented Fosca. Adapted from Ettore Scola’s film Passione d’Amore, which arose from the novel Fosca by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti, the tale of unrequited love, passionate romance and manipulation unfolds beautifully with Sondheim’s lovely score.
It’s 1863 Milan where we meet Giorgio (John Melis), a captain in the Italian army and his beautiful lover Clara (Julia Lustenader). Just awakened from a dalliance, they sing of their undying love in the very sensuous “Happiness”, a melody whose themes will be repeated later in the one-act. Sondheim cleverly places some prescient lyrics within the song; Clara sings “I’m so happy I’m afraid I’ll die, here in your arms”, and the two agree that they were both unhappy, unhappiness can be seductive, pity was involved and that pity leads to love. But I’ll come back to that later.
Giorgio is being transferred to a remote military outpost and their love will have to survive via romantic love letters that become a leitmotif of the play. He’s introduced to his commanding officer Colonel Ricci (Domonic Tracy) and Dr. Tambourri (Jake Gleason) and his fellow soldiers who mock the provincial nature of their post. Giorgio gets his “First Letter” and Clara responds with her “Second Letter”, the longing palpable and genuine.
Giorgio hears the story of the unseen Fosca, whose screams of torment echo through the post. Seems she has a mysterious nervous illness caused by deep melancholy. Giorgio feels isolated in his environment and with his fellow soldiers (“Third Letter”) when he finally meets Fosca. She’s plain, not beautiful and very frail. She’s been watching Giorgio, noticing he’s different from the rest, more sensitive and vulnerable like herself.
Returning the books he’s lent her to read, Fosca muses on her life in the poignant “I Read”, a life where she reads to dream and live in other people’s lives. Orth completely inhabits this tragic creature, twisting her facial features into grimaces of disdain and anger. If there’s no expectations, she says, there can be no disappointment. Giorgio is shocked by her attitude, so alien it is to his ideal love for Clara. Slowly they begin a discourse with walks in the garden and Fosca recovers some from her convulsions and seizures. When she finds out that Clara is married with a child, she questions Giogio’s commitment and shows her obsessive nature which only causes abhorrence in Giorgio.
Giorgio is repulsed and offended by Fosca’s fierce begging and runs away to see his beloved. But their love is not to be; Clara cannot run away with him and she must stay with her husband and child. Though rebuked and denied, Giorgio visits Fosca at her deathbed and she asks him to write a letter for her. It’s a fantasy letter from him to her (“I Wish I Could Forget You”) which when found will cause great consternation amongst the ranks and a duel between Giorgio and Fosca’s cousin Colonel Ricci.
Fosca would die for Giorgio, would Clara? Giorgio’s pity for Fosca will take him down a strange path in his discovery of true love. Giorgio realizes that he is in love with Fosca, but it is too late, and she quickly dies. Alone and suffering from his own nervous breakdown, he reads her finale letter. The force of Fosca’s feelings transformed Giorgio and makes Passion so powerful. Melis and Lustender are believable as the star-crossed lovers and the ensemble do their best as the chorus as they repeat Sondheim’s lyrics and move the chairs, table and bench that make up Bernadette Flynn’s minimalist set. Director Stuart Bousel retains the simple design of the original Broadway staging, adds some lovely lighting by Tina Johnson and costumes by Kathleen Qui.
Donna Murphy won a Tony for her portrayal of the clinging, physically repellent Fosca and Heather Orth gives an equally brilliant performance that should get her plenty of notice come award season.
Passion continues through July 20, 2019 at Custom Made Theatre company, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco. For tickets contact: www.custommade.org or (415) 782-2682.
Photos by Jay Yamada