CHESTER -- Love has the ability to transform; so have said poets and songwriters over the course of time.
You couldn't prove it, however, by Dora Hand, the pivotal character in Elizabeth Egloff's muddled, ultimately out-of-control play, "The Swan," the second production in Chester Theatre Company's season of uncommon love stories.
In real life and in her dreams, men have a way of leaving Dora (Tracy Liz Miller in a performance that is as notable for its physical grace as it is for its emotional honesty and complexity), a nurse who lives in a small house in a small town somewhere on the Nebraska prairie.
Dora's first husband divorced her; her second husband shot himself; her third husband left the house one night for a pack of cigarettes and never came back. Even the men she conjures up in her dreams -- strange half-human creatures -- vanish once she wakes up and real life takes hold.
For two years, Dora has been involved with an insufferably self-centered milkman named Kevin (a credible Joseph H. Knoll), who would seem to have it all -- a wife, three kids, a home, a secure job and a mistress, whom he supports to the limits the credit card he holds with his wife will allow.
"I'm a decent man," he proclaims with pride.
For the needy Dora, it's a perfect situation. At the same time, it's not enough. Then, one night, opportunity awakens a sleeping Dora in the form of a male trumpeter swan who comes crashing,
Dora takes the stunned, apprehensive bird in and nourishes him back to health. As the bird, whom Dora names Bill (Joel Ripka, by turns, awkward, shy, dependent, aggressive, inquisitive, threatening, assertive), settles in, he becomes human. He walks, unsteadily at first, then with increasing certainty. More than that, Bill begins talking.
There is in Bill an unsettling assertion; threatening aggressiveness. Where trumpeter swans as we know them in nature feed largely off aquatic plants and field grasses and grains, Bill is a carnivore. As he becomes more comfortable, more settled in Dora's house, Bill bonds with her emotionally; becomes possessive.
At once, Dora becomes the prize in a territorial battle between Bill and an increasingly desperate Kevin, who finds his perfect life unraveling.
Like a woman drawn against her better judgment to a bad boy, Dora is caught by Bill. Liberation, the freedom to love is there for the taking. In a turn that draws on the myth of Leda and the swan -- in which Leda, the much desired mortal wife of the king of Sparta, is seduced by the Greek god Zeus, who comes to her as a swan -- the inevitable happens and with consequences neither Kevin nor Dora could ever anticipate.
Another of Dora's dreams? Perhaps, but, dream or life, this is Dora's reality. Unfortunately, dream or life, there is little here to make us care very much about the outcome. Egloff's invention and imagination carry her only so far before they run out of steam and the play overstays its welcome. That we care to any extent about these characters says a good deal more about the resourcefulness of director Daniel Elihu Kramer's cast, especially Miller, than it does about Egloff's writing.
"What is love? Why do we do it?" Dora asks at one point, quoting one of her former husbands.
Why should we care?
THE SWAN by Elizabeth Egloff. Directed by Daniel Elihu Kramer; set design, Travis George; lighting design, Lars Dubin; costume design, Arthur Oliver; sound design, Tom Shread. Through July 29. Eves.: Wed.-Sat. 8. Mats.: Thu., Sun. 2. Chester Theatre Company, Chester Town Hall, 15 Middlefield Road (at Route 20), Chester. Tickets: $33, $28. (1-800) 595-4849; www.chestertheatre.org. 1 hour 33 minutes Dora Tracy Liz Miller
Kevin Jacob H. Knoll
Bill Joel Ripka