Clara Schumann plays at Ventfort Hall

Thursday August 9, 2012

LENOX -- Director and playwright Mary Guzzy likes the thought of making the old fresh and relevant.

At Ventfort Hall, her new play, "Clara," looks into the life of piano virtuosa Clara Schu mann, and brings Schumann’s music into the 1893 Gilded Age-mansion’s elegant library.

"I’m amazed at what Ventfort Hall has done in the 10 years I have been associated with them," Guzzy said by phone from her home in Corning, N.Y. "I remember the library with the walls covered in blue tarp. They have completely restored the first floor, the second floor is under way -- I walked through it this summer and was just amazed at what they had done."

Guzzy has done the same with "Clara," telling the story of piano virtuosa Clara Schumann (1819-1896), wife and muse of composer Robert Schumann.

Sarah Jeanette Taylor stars as Clara in Guzzy’s one-woman play, which runs at Ventfort Hall through Sept. 2.

A college theater professor, Guzzy worked at Shakespeare & Company when she wrote "The Color of War" for Vent fort Hall in 2002.

"I really love to look into the lives of historical figures," she said.

During her research she be came fascinated by Clara.

"You couldn’t make up the things that happened in her life," she said.

Born in 1819 in Leipzig, Ger many, and raised by her divorced father, Friedrich Wieck, she made her concert debut at 9, fought to marry Robert Schu mann, survived her husband’s madness and death, outlived four of her eight children and raised six of her grandchildren, said Guzzy -- all the while pursuing a brilliant international career as concert pianist and composer.

"She was a genius," Guzzy said. "She loved music."

Beginning when she returns home "in her traveling clothes," the play ends after Robert Schumann has died and Clara reassesses her life.

"She went on for another 40 years," Guzzy explained, "and there’s a whole other story there."

She chose not to marry her lifelong friend Johannes Brahms, who was very clearly in love with her, Guzzy said. He was 14 years younger than she was, and he died unwed 11 months after Clara. In the process of preparing to play Clara, Taylor also has gotten involved with her character’s history, studying her letters and diaries.

"It’s a tale of a modern woman who pursued her passion while still wanting to fall in love, be a wife, raise a family and have a career," Taylor said. "It sounds like what we all try to do now, but this was in the 1800s."

More than just a tale of a strong woman, she said, the play "has become for me a journey in survival."

The historic house is another character in the play, Taylor explained. Large wall portraits of Wieck, Robert Schumann and Brahms serve as additional cast members, the two handsome young men accentuating Wieck’s aged, grim demeanor.

"I love this room," she said. "[Berkshire-based designer] Carl Sprague just comes in here and does magic. Since I am the only person on stage, it’s wonderful to have this connection to their actual faces," she said.

Acting in a one-woman show has been a new experience for her.

"It’s an intimate theater; you cannot get away from that," she said. "The audience is so clearly visible, and so they have to be a part of the journey."

Even at 10 a.m. on Sundays.

"I love the Sunday morning audiences," Taylor said. "They’re all very present and awake somehow."

Without traditional theater lighting and staging, "it’s just a different way to tell a story," she said.

The acting has to be about the words, and the connection with the audience and with the character, she explained. "It’s a glimpse at a remarkable woman. Making the journey new and fresh every day is a welcome and rewarding challenge as an actor."


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