Friday June 8, 2012

LENOX -- Director Nicole Ricciardi's illuminating production of "Cassandra Speaks" at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre begins on anything but an illuminating note.

As the lights come up on Patrick Brennan's evocative seting, journalist Dorothy Thom pson (Tod Randolph in a meticulously shaped, deeply felt performance) is sitting at her desk in the den in the Vermont home she built with her former husband, Nobel Prize novelist Sinclair Lewis.

It is June 16, 1943 and with only just over an hour before 40 guests show up for her wedding to a painter named Maxim Kopf (Max, as Thompson refers to him with fondness and genuine love settling across her face whenever she does), she is busily at work on her newspaper column. Suddenly, she looks up, startled to find us, whoever we, the theater audience, are supposed to be, gathered there.

It's not long before Thompson regales us with a catalog of her temperamental shortcomings. It's an awkward, artificial augury for the rest of the evening.

But what follows instead after that introductory rough patch is a smart, feelingly conceived blend of history and the personal as Thompson wrestles with a profound case of pre-wedding jitters. Strong, insightful, feisty, determined and passionate in her convictions, Randolph's Thompson also is vulnerable, uncertain, ready to cancel the wedding while, at the same time, she is consumed by a need to reach out and talk to her ex in New York.

And as she wrestles with that intense emotional conflict, she takes us on a journey through history -- her posting in Berlin, her meeting with Hitler in a hotel suite; her encounters with other members of Hitler's Reich; her frustration at the deafness displayed by members of the Roosevelt administration to her Cassandralike warnings about Hitler; her deep concern about the fate of the European refugees created by Hitler's barbaric militarism; her relationship with Lewis.

Plotkin has gone beyond the limitations of this kind of "talking head" play in which some notable, usually no-longer-living figure is brought to life for 90 minutes or so of "advertisements for myself." He has delivered a fascinating, complex, fully formed and dimensioned human being who is all too aware of her own shortcomings and wrestles with them even as she wages more fierce battles against the background of world war.

Thompson has an articulate representative in Randolph. An absolute master of her craft, Ran dolph has a way of working herself beneath the skin of her characters. She burrows deep within Thompson here. The result is at once revealing and compelling.

At one point, Thompson begins talking about a trip she took with a friend, Christa. "We ," Randolph's Thompson says, completing the sentence not with spoken words but, rather, with a play of time and memory across the canvas of her face that speaks volumes.

That moment is emblematic of the nuanced truth and au then ticity that fills the Bern stein space throughout this play's full, complete 87 minutes.