Medea is one of the great greedy roles of dramatic literature--a figure so vast that it can absorb all the energies and intuitions of an actress and still cry out for more. Lest it be found wanting, it wants all--passion, pathos, poetry, exoticism, magic and even the milk of a mother's love. It is insatiable in its demands. Talent will take an actress only so far into the character; a certain recklessness and courage are required to finish off the deed.
On Saturday night, Zoe Caldwell undertook the role in the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, and it is difficult to imagine her more precise in her craft or bold in her approach. The resulting performance is mesmerizing in its breadth and the exactness of its effects. Whether or not it matches Judith Anderson's much heralded performance in 1947 I must leave to memories longer than mine. Caldwell's is one of the finest creations, however, to grace the Eisenhower Stage, dwarfing a supporting cast that, in some instances, is asking to be dwarfed.
As it happens, Caldwell is taking on the challenge under the very nose of Anderson herself, who has been lured back to the stage in her mid-80s to play the role of the Nurse. Time has not eroded the gravity of Anderson's voice nor the dignity of her presence. She gives a touching performance as the befuddled witness to Medea's horrible acts, but even if she didn't, her presence alone would be touching. Unlike European theater, the American theater is more cavalier about matters of tradition. In the Eisenhower, one senses --above and beyond the particular distinctions of this revival--that a torch is being passed along.
The Eisenhower company is using the version of Euripides' tragedy that poet Robinson Jeffers originally conceived for Anderson. Its virtues are still intact. Pruning away some of the repetitions in the original, Jeffers cuts his way quickly and starkly into the Greek legend of the woman, who was thrown over by Jason for a younger wife and then ordered by Creon into cruel exile. In his insistence on an empty, capricious universe, Jeffers also sounds the pessimism of the modern age. The Nurse's final deadened lament--"There is no hope in heaven or earth"--is also today's playwright talking.
Ben Edwards' set--Medea's house with its "pillared doorway" rising into the chill of a starry night--establishes the ominous disproportion in the tragedy itself. Men are tiny against those massive doors, just as they are helpless against the unfolding wrath of Medea. Robert Whitehead's direction doesn't always equal the majesty of this locale. Rough on the edges, the staging tends to concentrate its forces on Medea and the immediate vicinity. The chorus of three women of Corinth--headed by Rosemary Murphy--often seems like an appendage, for example, and it doesn't help that Murphy sometimes appears to be fretting over matters of country club protocol.
The men--Paul Sparer (Creon), Peter Brandon (Aegeus) and Mitchell Ryan (Jason)--also tend to pale, although Ryan finds some of Jason's crushing agony in his final moments, when he confronts the blood-soaked corpses of his two children. As written, the men's roles are admittedly less vigorous and not entirely free of a kind of vanity that registers as pompous and silly. But Caldwell's remarkable performance diminishes them even further.
Although the actress explores the multiple strains of the character, her primary choice has been to accentuate the exoticism of Medea, the enchantress from Asia who worships "the wild gray goddess that walks in the dark." Medea's magic protected Jason during his quest for the Golden Fleece, and she knows potions that can regenerate sterile old men. In moments of torment, Caldwell's body trembles with orgiastic fervor, and her left hand unconsciously kneads the purple robe hugging her loins.
The actress never lets us forget that if Medea is a creature of clever calculation, her blood also thirsts for appeasement. Caldwell uses every note on the dramatic scale, from the lustrous to the shrill, often switching daringly in mid-sentence. All of them seem to be transubstantiations of the flesh. The deviousness of her mind finds expression in the quick crab-like steps she uses to scuttle away from Creon. And when the Nurse recounts the devastation in Creon's palace, sheer shivering ecstasy overtakes Caldwell's prostrate form. Such acts of wildness never come at the expense of dramatic truth, however. Caldwell traps raw and elemental emotions that could be ours.
There will surely be other Medeas, for the role, nearly 2,400 years old, refuses to date, and its riches are inexhaustible. But I wouldn't miss this one.
MEDEA. Adapted from Euripides by Robinson Jeffers. Directed by Robert Whitehead. Set, Ben Edwards; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting Martin Aronstein. With Zoe Caldwell, Mitchell Ryan, Rosemary Murphy, Paul Sparer, Peter Brandon, Judith Anderson. At the Eisenhower Theater through April 10.