PITTSFIELD -- There is a charmingly brazen playfulness and whimsy operating in "Working on a Special Day." At the same time, the stakes for the play’s two central characters, Antonietta and Gabriele -- especially Gabriele -- could not be higher.
The play -- an inventive, imaginative, resourcefully acted piece that began a two-week run over the weekend at Barrington Stage Company’s St. Germain Stage -- is set in Rome on the day of Adolf Hitler’s arrival there in 1938 to meet Italy’s Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini.
Rome is in a festive mood. Flags and welcoming, cheering crowds line a parade route in Hitler’s honor. But for Antonietta, the apolitical wife of a civil servant who works as human resources manager at the Ministry of East African Affairs and mother to their six children -- two girls and four boys ranging in age from 5 to 19 -- it is a day much like any other. It begins by getting her children and husband up, dressed and ready to go to the parade while she stays at home. While they are away, she will tend to her household obligations -- cleaning, laundry, cooking. But in an apartment across the courtyard from Antonietta, the day holds darker significance for a single man, Gabriele, who is sitting in the middle of the spare apartment contemplating suicide. The two will meet when Antonietta’s parrot, Rosamunda, gets out of her cage, flies through an open window and lands on a ledge outside Gabriele’s apartment.
Antonietta (subtly and affectingly played by Ana Graham) shows up at Gabriele’s apartment to retrieve Rosamunda, with Gabriele’s help. As the day progresses, Antonietta and Gabriele come to know each other in ways neither could possibly anticipate.
She is cautious, proper, but she also is love deprived. Sex with her philandering husband is one more household obligation. She has subjugated her true self to her role in the marriage.
For his part, Gabriele (a less dimensional performance than Graham’s, but skillful nonetheless) is defined by society’s distaste for his homosexuality, which has cost him his job as a radio announcer, and made him a public object of scorn and derision and placed his life in jeopardy. His roiling sense of injustice erupts in a rageful outburst late in the play. But with Antonietta, he is charming, open, a source of comfort, someone who sees Antonietta for who she is, even at a moment when he becomes someone he is not.
"Working on a Special Day" is about identity, transformation, discovery, truth; about the complex dynamics of human nature and its behavior under demanding, often unanticipated, unexpected circumstances.
For all the complexity of "Working on a Special Day’s" story, its style is the essence of theatrical simplicity. This is storytelling at its most basic. This is make believe as a channel for revealing truth.
Graham and Vega are introduced to the audience as themselves -- actors in street clothes who chat freely with the audience as they go about their business changing into costume on a stage that -- with the exceptions of two chairs, an end table and a longer dining room table -- is bare. The stage’s black walls are smooth, the surfaces clean, but as the play progresses, Graham and Vega, who supply the voices of each of the play’s characters, will draw in chalk what they need -- windows, a telephone, shelving, a bird cage, a peephole, lighting fixtures, kitchen shelving. It is an openly make-believe world for us -- like children at play, Vega said in an interview -- as well as for Vega and Graham; for Antonietta and Gabriele, however, it is an all-too-real world filled with peril -- intolerance, narrow-minded thinking, inhibition, persecution, fear of showing openly who and what you are as a human being.
Vega and Graham are resourceful performers. Vega indulges in nicely turned whimsy in some of his voices -- Rosamunda, a nosy neighbor, Antonietta’s children -- and chilling authority and certainty as Antonietta’s husband. His Gabriele is not as solidly crafted -- more illustrative than emotionally engaged. Graham is more persuasive in a moving portrayal of an exhausted, dutiful woman who finds unexpected opportunity in an otherwise proscribed life that has kept her as confined as Rosamunda. The ironic parallels between Rosamunda’s short-lived flight for freedom and Antonietta’s "special day" don’t escape unnoticed.