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'Madagascar' offers dazzling theatricality, mystery at Chester Theatre Company

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'Madagascar' at the Chester Theatre Company

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Ever enjoy curling up with a good book and becoming engrossed in its slowly unveiling plot while trying to figure out how all the characters are related and what secrets are yet to be revealed? Can you imagine such an experience happening in live theater?

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Well, wonder no more. To kick off its 25th Anniversary season, the Chester Theatre Company in Chester, Mass., is currently providing audiences with a rare opportunity to “curl up with a good play” during the run of J. T. Rogers’ “Madagascar,” which opened this past weekend and runs through Sunday, July 6 at the theater in the Chester Town Hall. Thanks to James Warwick’s carefully modulated direction and outstanding performances by its cast of three, “Madagascar” proves to be enthralling, tantalizing and stunningly rewarding evening.

At the play’s core is a single major mystery, though it takes a while for the exact circumstances to become apparent. A young man, known as Paul to nearly every person, has up and disappeared from his rooms in Rome, with no advance warning although it is obvious that it had been planned. There remains no sign of Paul, no trail of evidence to follow, nor any subsequent sightings, dead or alive.

Struggling to piece together the events that led up to his disappearance and to recount some of the herculean efforts that went into a subsequent two-year search are three people who we meet in Paul’s vacant rooms at three different periods of time. There’s Lillian, Paul’s wealthy and imperious widowed mother, who enjoyed a very strong relationship with her son. We also meet Jane, Paul’s sister, who works as a tour guide in Rome but leads a Spartan and lonely existence, missing the one person with whom she shared an intense and overwhelming connection. Finally, Rogers introduces us to Nathan, a quiet yet famous economics professor who was the close friend of Lillian’s even more famous and venerated economist husband, Lloyd, who died after a lengthy illness.

Each recount their story directly to the audience as they navigate through Travis A. George’s vivid recreation of a sparsely furnished hotel room a block or so from the Spanish steps, not taking any notice of the other, because under Rogers’ clever handiwork, they are in three distinctly different time periods. Lillian, played by an immaculately coiffed and poised Debra Jo Rupp, speaks from a point five years prior, while her daughter’s observations are shared from five days ago. Nathan, however, inhabits the present and though we suspect we will be needing him to help pull some the final strands together, we wonder how this man, who at this point has only a marginal connection to the family, is ultimately involved.

As the plot swirls around us in unexpected directions and occasional contradictions, as our minds reach out to latch onto each carefully revealed piece of information, the story of all five characters slowly emerges (though Paul and Lloyd do not appear on stage) and the significance of the title is revealed as family shorthand for an invented far-off utopia where problems can be forgotten and easy refuge can be found. It’s a thrilling experience to be so invested in trying to figure out just what all the connections and motivations may have been and just as eager to learn if we’ll get any closure about Paul’s disappearance. To say anything more would spoil the experience of unraveling this marvelous and gripping story.

Rogers is quite an esteemed American playwright, whose two works that I have seen, “The Overwhelming” and “Blood and Gifts,” reveal his interest and ability in tackling internationally prickly events, specifically the impact of the Rwandan genocide on an American family in the former play and an American agent’s culpability in arming the Mujahadeen with weapons in the mid-1980’s that eventually end up in the hands of Iran. “Madagascar” plays on a much more human and humane level, yet demonstrates the playwright’s ability to present complicated and all-enveloping plots in a novelistic or even cinematically fascinating manner.

It is nice to find Rupp up to challenge of playing a character who never loses her sense of propriety and good taste, even when faced with adult children who do not always adhere to her specific wishes or expectations. A certain amiability does shine through in her performance as the play progresses, as she begins to be a bit more open and free with information about her life.

Kim Stauffer is stunningly beautiful as daughter Jane, who has frequently been put off to the side by her mother who tends to concentrate more on Paul. Stauffer is marvelous as she gradually reveals more and more about the intense emotional relationship that has developed between brother and sister, as well as the unbearable grief that sends her on an obsessive, single-minded around the world search for her missing brother.

Paul O’Brien gives a suitably controlled performance as the academic Nathan, who finds himself unexpectedly drawn to his best friend’s wife. He never comes across as a stodgy professor, but instead portrays believably a man comfortable with his intelligence, perhaps a little awkward in certain social situations, and with a beating heart and physical needs who finds someone similar in Lillian.

Warwick’s direction allows Rogers’ play to unfold leisurely, yet never at a lagging pace. Occasionally, when one character is reminiscing about a specific situation in the past, another character may pipe in with just the tiniest bit of dialogue to indicate their presence at that event. The actors are also once in a while called upon to very briefly represent some fleeting characters, such as annoying tourists being led by Jane, or as friends or co-workers of Paul’s, who had contact with him just before his disappearance.

George’s evocative set is highlighted by Lara Dubin’s lighting, which captures Roman sunrises and sunsets, while effortlessly helping to transport the characters back into their memories to late night terrace conversations in New York, to a cottage along a lake in Switzerland or an aid outpost in Africa. Arthur Oliver has provided attractive costumes for each of the characters, including a tastefully revealing white slip for Jane and a stunning outfit for Lillian that works on the diminutive Rupp.

“Madagascar” represents a stimulating and worthwhile start to the Chester Theatre’s anniversary season. For information and tickets, contact the box office at 1.800.595.4TIX or visit the theater’s website at www.chestertheatre.org.

To keep up with theatrical activities in western Massachusetts or Connecticut, consider subscribing to the Springfield Art Examiner or the Hartford Arts Examiner by clicking on the word “Subscribe” at the top of this article, near the byline. A copy of each new article will be sent directly to your inbox.

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