The Light in the Piazza


Editorial Review

Peter Marks reviews the Arena Stage's 'Light in the Piazza'

By Peter Marks
Monday, March 15, 2010

"The Light in the Piazza" requires an actress of embraceable finesse in the role of Margaret, the Southern matron who takes her childlike grown daughter on an eventful sightseeing trip to Florence. And in the vibrantly intelligent Hollis Resnik, Arena Stage found one.

As with Victoria Clark, who originated the part in Lincoln Center Theater's beautiful Broadway version, Resnik projects soulful vulnerability, a sense that this stifled woman needs as much protection as she seeks to bestow. Instead of standard-issue applause, what an audience wants to do is give her a big, consoling hug.

The casting of Resnik -- and of Nicholas Rodriguez, in the role of the daughter's smoldering suitor Fabrizio -- represent the high-water marks of this staging of the 2005 musical, with a well-crafted libretto by Craig Lucas and an achingly romantic score from Adam Guettel. So it smarts a little to report that director Molly Smith's physical production itself is a major letdown, with a dreary set of the sort you'd find crammed onto a cruise ship and a five-piece orchestra that sounds as slight as it looks, perched up there on Arena's Crystal City poop deck.

Starved for visual appeal, the musical disappointingly seems to turn an ever more enervating shade of gray.

Based on a novella by Elizabeth Spencer that was made into a 1962 movie of the same title, "The Light in the Piazza" offers an especially delicate framework for a musical. The character-driven story principally revolves around Margaret and her process of letting go of her only child, Clara (Margaret Anne Florence), who was left with mysterious mental gaps after a childhood accident with a pony, and who now, as a pretty young woman, catches the eye of a swooning Florentine. Margaret's poignant attachment to Clara, though, is symptomatic of the gaps in her own romantic life, as her marriage to a cigarette company executive has grown as stale to her as Italy comes to seem throbbingly alive.

That feeling of la dolce vita is reflected in Fabrizio's warm-blooded family, which is not without its own bruised relationships: Fabrizio's sister-in-law Franca (the terrific Ariela Morgenstern) nurses her resentment of the casual infidelity of her husband, Fabrizio's older brother Giuseppe (Jonathan Raviv). While Clara is welcomed into the household -- the family chooses to view her through Fabrizio's rose-colored prism -- the old-school patriarch (Ken Krugman) finds at a crucial turn in their intense courtship a curious reason to object.

The tender epiphanies of "The Light in the Piazza" place it on a rather refined pedestal: It can feel a bit too manicured at times, as if it were tailored to the tastes of the garden club. Still, Guettel's score, with portions in Italian, is melodically inventive and at its best in songs such as Fabrizio and Clara's "Passeggiata" and Margaret's "Dividing Day," which vividly convey the conflict embodied in the musical, the tug-of-war between passion and caution. (A few of the voices in the production have to push to hit notes, but by and large the singing is of an assured caliber.)

Rodriguez and Resnik prove to be most effective conduits of the evening's emotional poles. In Rodriguez's exuberant, vocally supple performance, you really get the feeling that Fabrizio can hardly contain himself around Florence's fetching Clara, that he must have her. That devotion is moving on this occasion because you also see how it fills Clara with self-belief, the courage to declare her independence from her mother.

Resnik, for her part, gives a thoroughly convincing account of a sensible woman of thwarted desire (and of the time period, the 1950s) who is nevertheless a more vigilant watchdog over her daughter than is good for either of them. In this Margaret's grudging realization that she must revise her idea of Clara and step out of her child's way, there arrive bona fide lump-in-the-throat moments. Portraying Clara, Florence is especially successful in helping an audience to divine the subtle tears in Clara's psychological fabric, those outbursts -- as in Act 2's "Clara's Tirade" -- that reveal the immaturity obscured by beauty.

With such a strong cast, you're doubly frustrated by the dearth of visual panache -- one of the hallmarks of the original production. Granted, Arena's temporary Crystal City space starts with serious limitations. But it's rarely seemed as ill-suited for theater as it does here, attempting to stand in for an entrancing piazza. Anne Patterson's set of rough-hewn windows and arches looks as crude as the musical's themes feel elevated. (Some projections onto the walls of artwork by Italian masters adds only a dash of color.) And Linda J. Cho's period costumes are merely serviceable.

In an atmospheric musical so defined by the style of a specific time and place, conveying something that intrigues the eyes becomes essential. So maybe the best way to experience this "Piazza" is simply by closing them, and listening.

Book by Craig Lucas, music and lyrics by Adam Guettel. Directed by Molly Smith. Musical staging and choreography, Parker Esse; lighting, Michael Gilliam; projections, Adam Larsen; sound, Timothy M. Thompson. With Mary Gutzi, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Drew Eshelman. About 2 hours 20 minutes.