Here’s a rarity: George Bernard Shaw’s translation/adaptation of a play by Austrian playwright Siegfried Trebitsch, the man who translated Shaw’s plays into German. It’s likely that the Berkshire Theater Festival production of “Jitta’s Atonement” is the first since Lee Shubert produced the world premiere on Broadway in 1923. And while the play is not a rediscovered masterpiece, it is a piece of high comedy that gets better and more Shavian as it proceeds, as does the production. “Jitta’s Atonement” is well worth reviving and brings some luster to New England’s 1996 summer season.
Yes, the play is talkative and not without melodramatic moments, particularly in its first two acts. But by act three “Jitta” is flying high with delicious confrontations as its titular character atones for her infidelity and sets things to right. In this last act, Shaw transformed the tragedy of Trebitsch’s original into a thoroughly Shavian tragicomedy full of triumphant humor and psychological truth, and here cast, production and play come together with scintillating humor.
The first act is particularly tricky: Jitta (played with considerable insight by Dianne Wiest) and her married psychologist/lover (Harris Yulin) meet in a Viennese house of assignations. He dies of a heart attack and she flees to avoid scandal. But prior to his death, the lover has made Jitta swear that the book he’s just completed will be published under the name of Jitta’s husband as posthumous payment for the affair. This situation leads to endless complications and to Jitta’s ultimate atonement for her infidelity; along the way, she proves her intelligence despite a streak of girlish romanticism.
Wiest has some wickedly wonderful moments as Jitta, delving deeper and deeper as the play does the same. Curiously, costume designer Pamela Scofield has seemingly done better by the other women in the cast, although Wiest may be partly at fault for appearing rather frumpy in the 1920s costumes. Nevertheless, she triumphs in the end.
As her lover, Bruno, director Yulin gives a straight, unfussy performance. His direction is similarly straight and unfussy, though a lighter touch might be preferable. Jon DeVries, as Jitta’s unromantic husband, overplays his comic hand at first, turning his Alfred into a cigar-puffing oaf. But in the last act he calls upon his ability to act subtly, to wry effect.
Elizabeth Franz is splendid as Bruno’s loving, embittered widow. And in the small role of a madam, Avril Gentles is suitably idiosyncratic.
The production’s most telling performance might belong to Calista Flockhart as the dead man’s daughter. In a comparatively small role the actress makes every line count without overplaying her hand. It’s a performance of determined skill.
Set designer Miguel Romero has done wonders, from the exotic Gustav Klimt-inspired front-drop portrait of Jitta to the curved, stenciled walls that become three quite different interiors.
It’s a pity this production won’t be seen beyond the brief, sold-out festival run.