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The Right Dose of Degas


Every year, a few weeks before Jazz Fest, we have Rosary Fest. For Rosary O'Neill, the founder and artistic director of Southern Rep, has set herself the daunting task of churning out a play a year. This ambitious regimen has occasioned considerable comment in the theater community, not all of it laudatory. And, truth to tell, these censorious grumblings have been largely justified by the insubstantial nature of many of the past offerings -- although, in fairness, one can also distinguish the hiss of a familiar green-eyed monster amid the disgruntled chorus.

Last year, O'Neill turned to Chekhov for inspiration. Invasion of Beauty was an adaptation of Uncle Vanya, set in the bayou country. Despite a title that sticks in one's throat, the play was far and away the best written of O'Neill's scripts that I have seen. The improvement in character, motivation, structure and tone were striking.

It is clear from Degas, O'Neill's current offering, that her time in communion with the Russian master has served her in good stead. There is an economy of dialogue, an aptness of character and, above all, a sense of proportion in this drama that places it squarely on the Invasion of Beauty side of the great divide.

I don't know enough about Degas' life or his stay in New Orleans to judge the verisimilitude of the story. Was there a decisive passion at 2306 Esplanade Ave. that set the future course of the painter's life? It's news to me. Well, let's suppose the intense, muted love affair is poetic license. After all, historical accuracy is not the central issue (although the title does mislead us a bit, in that case).

In fact, the play is not a biographical study, but a sort of historical fantasia. And as such, it's an interesting look at post-bellum New Orleans, with a focus on the decline of the French Creole culture, that up until that time had dominated the city.

The play begins with Degas (Raymond Vrazel Jr.) reminiscing about a trip to France taken by his New Orleans cousins, the Musson sisters, "who had come to Europe to ride out the Civil War." At that time, according to the play, Degas fell in love with Estelle Musson (Veronica Russell), but somehow allowed his moment to pass. Instead, Estelle (who was in mourning for her first husband, a young soldier killed in battle) married his brother René (Barret O'Brien).

Now, nine years later, the world has changed radically. The Confederacy has lost the war. The old upper class is ruined and waging a terrorist war against their former slaves to regain ascendancy in the new, slaveless South. Meanwhile, Degas himself has fought as part of the idealistic Paris Commune that was brutally crushed by the French government. As he enters middle age, he feels discouraged both by what he has learned of the world and by his own slow progress in his chosen art.

At the Musson house, pater familias Michel (Ron Gural), who often sports his old Confederate uniform, has hopes of marrying off his 23-year-old daughter, Didi (Ashley Nolan), to Degas. Didi is a dyed-in-the-wool blue-stocking and desperately tries to establish an intellectual romance with the painter, but he is still in love with Estelle.

Estelle, meanwhile, has become almost totally blind. Her husband, René (Degas' brother), has become a weak-willed, self-pitying alcoholic. He is having an affair with his daughter's nanny (Carolina Paiz), a self-centered bitch who is the most broadly drawn of the characters.

The family drama plays itself out during the course of Degas' stay. The Chekhovian influence is felt in the complex weave of diverse personalities, each with a clear, convincing point of view -- right down to young Jo (Estelle's daughter by her first husband), played with a charming assurance by 10-year-old Lashley Schulingkamp.

The social and political background is effectively suggested by a subplot involving cousin Emily Rillieux (Deborah Lee Smith), a Creole married to the brilliant inventor, Norbert Rillieux. Rillieux, like all people of color, is being persecuted by the White League and is finally forced into exile in France. When the crusty patriarch, Michel, offhandedly stuffs a cavalry revolver into his belt as he leaves for a meeting of the White League, the viewer is struck suddenly with the ugly truth of what we blandly call "Reconstruction."

The actors, under Erika Szanto's direction, do solid work including Marsha Mason as the third Musson sister (not mentioned in the plot summary). Robert Self's set is stylish and Larisa Iviankina's costumes are apt.

Aficionados of Rosary Fest will be happy to learn this year's edition is easily one of the best.

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