With a keen grasp of how important it can be to start off on the right foot, Blake Robison begins his tenure at Round House Theatre with a deftly performed, subtly embroidered production of "Camille." The new producing artistic director has set the bar high. His staging of the Dumas classic looks good, feels good and for all one can tell, smells good, too.
Put aside any of your instincts about the shopworn aspects of the story of the tubercular courtesan and the callow, patrician Parisian who adores her. This new adaptation by Neil Bartlett of the 19th-century novel "La Dame aux Camelias," in what Round House bills as its American debut, is free of stodginess. It breathes and just as importantly, it moves, tracking the parallel advances of Marguerite Gautier's withering disease and an onset of humility.
Robison's choices all work to his advantage, from the intriguing perspectives of James Kronzer's vast parlor-room set to the eye-catching frippery of Rosemary Pardee's costumes. Little goes to waste here: an array of empty picture frames seems like mere decoration until the handwriting begins appearing on the wall. They have a clever use, as frames for the novel-style chapter headings projected onto the set. Daniel MacLean Wagner's lighting gives full value, too, bathing a backdrop in the sorts of late summer hues that hint at endings and regrets.
His secret weapon, though, is a leading lady, Angela Reed, incapable of a false note. Her Marguerite is the sort of puzzle one would expect of an infamous woman of her age. ("Camille" is based on an actual woman with whom author Alexandre Dumas, son and namesake of the creator of "The Three Musketeers," had an affair.) Reed seems at once hard and soft, assured and insecure, mercenary and generous. The wonderful well-roundedness of the performance is reinforced by an eerily Streep-like voice and bearing.
The director has surrounded her with actors with fine ears for the cynical as well as sentimental strains of the text. As Armand, Marguerite's unflinching suitor, Aubrey Deeker is redolent of both refinement and breakability, a young man even more fragile and chivalrous. Vanessa Vaughn's Olympe, a young rival of Marguerite's, ably captures the hubris of one who's the flavor of the month: She's a starlet who thinks her contract with youth will never run out. Dan Manning delivers a sensitive turn as a father defending his investment in the next generation. And Sarah Marshall is mischievously on point as an aging social butterfly with an unlimited imagination for the uses of other people's money.
Embedded in Bartlett's play -- one of the wittier adaptations in a genre that's littered with page-bound misfires -- is the mirror on our own star-crazed times. As in the novel, the play begins with the auctioning off of the dead courtesan's lavish inventory, earned over a legendarily lusty life. The hangers-on who drank Dom Perignon from her crystal now gorge on the stories of her debt-ridden decline. "The Selling Off of Marguerite Gautier," reads the projection on the wall.
Marguerite, we learn, is a boldface name of her time, an ambitious, self-made woman whose business is pleasure. In denial about the scandal of it all, she is only vaguely aware of subliminal rivers of contempt. "To make a whore love you," someone says. "That's something spectacularly worth doing." That she puts on an act, a carefree smile, in the face of tuberculosis only adds to the sense of a mask permanently affixed.
Reed is terrific in navigating the arrogant, impetuous and needy aspects of Marguerite's nature. She invests the character, too, with the pride of one at the top of her profession. When, for instance, she mounts, fully clothed, the out-of-his-mind-in-love Armand, it's with the technical assurance of one who's earned her place at the head of the class.
What animates "Camille" is hope. Marguerite, when we meet her, is a prisoner of illness and notoriety, both of which put tight seals on her expectations, and her future. As she observes, a prostitute is not entitled to the real intimacy of husband and children. Then arrives Armand, all of 24, and he becomes the more experienced Marguerite's fantasy husband as well as her son. He frees her to dream.
The story, of course, takes on some of the more mundane trappings of a tearjerker, as it moves from the lovers' flirtation to a meaningful consideration of The Consequences. But the staging remains meaty even when the circumstances grow soapy. After they are driven apart, by the appeal of Armand's father to Marguerite's conscience, Armand and Marguerite meet once again, at a party. Their time, it's clear, is over, and all they can express is animal attraction. All that's left to them is a mechanical rutting against a wall.
Marguerite's death scene is, like so much in this production, staged meticulously. Her shroud is one of the sheets draped over the sofas that are now to be sold, and when the lights fade on a stricken Armand, the emotions are tastefully muted. In the extinguishing of love, there is something extra in this theater to be thankful for: The baton at Round House seems to have been passed with care.
Camille, by Alexandre Dumas fils, adapted by Neil Bartlett. Directed by Blake Robison. Set, James Kronzer; costumes, Rosemary Pardee; lighting, Daniel MacLean Wagner; sound, Martin Desjardins; projections, JJ Kaczynski. With Mitchell Hebert, Kathryn Kelley, Matthew Detmer, Jim Scopeletis. Approximately 2 hours 10 minutes. Through Oct. 9 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. Call 240-644-1100 or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.