Whatever revelations are in store from the upcoming Sylvia Plath biopic starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Alexander gets the jump on them with his searing psychoanalytic study of the iconic poet on the last day of her short, troubled life. Although it’s presented without artifice (set and costumes are rendered in bleak, monochromatic gray), this extended monologue tears a piece out of Plath’s heart and serves it up raw with a side of gall. This cutting “Edge” is the second play that Alexander, author of a biography of Plath, has penned for Angelica Torn, the phenomenally gifted offspring of thespians Rip Torn and Geraldine Page: She makes a juicy meal of it.
Torn is the genuine goods. Seated in an armchair and scribbling in a school notebook as the audience enters, she’s got the look of total concentration of someone with a religious message that you don’t want to hear — or a score to settle that you don’t want to know about. Sure enough, when this extraordinarily focused actor closes her notebook, squares her shoulders and announces, “This is the last day of my life,” we are truly hooked.
What follows is a welcome, if somewhat shocking, surprise from a young woman who is about to walk into the kitchen of her London flat, turn on the gas stove, place a dishtowel on the oven door so she can rest her head and suck in “the sweet pungent scent” that will stop her heart and leave her dead body to be found by her two children. There are no tears, no bathos and no whining from either actress or playwright, just a steely determination to prove Plath “a strong, resilient woman” who took her own life because she had the reason — and the right — to do so.
At the same time, the play cunningly poses the key existential question about the act of suicide: Why? Even as she asserts her choice as the ultimate act of free will, Plath sardonically acknowledges the bitterness and anger, the sheer vengefulness that fuel the act. “Does any one person ever really decide to kill herself?” she challenges. “How do you leave out the people around her — her loved ones and her friends, especially those who have betrayed her?”
Picking through the emotional landmarks of her fragile history, she dredges it all up with an intelligence heavily accented with irony: the traumatizing death of her father, the bruising experiences at Smith College and Cambridge, the psychological morbidity that led to the 1953 suicide attempt she would immortalize in her autobiographical novel “The Bell Jar.” But most of all, she concentrates her mind on her magnetic and abusive husband, the poet Ted Hughes: “this Nazi, this monster, this bastard,” whom she loved and hated to insane distraction.
Torn is too disciplined a performer to flail around the stage in extremis, but there is something unnerving about the anxious hand gestures and jerky head movements that accompany Plath’s arias of loathing and longing for the husband who betrayed her with a friend. True or not, it does seem as if Plath’s suicide was also her perverted weapon of vengeance.
That we should remain so absorbed in this account of one woman’s morbid fixation is largely due to Torn’s astonishing vocal range and flawless technique. At times, she races demonically through Plath’s shopping list of reasons for committing suicide, as if she had gone over them so many times in her head — and in the end-of-days poems that would be collected under the title “Ariel” — that she no longer has to convince herself or anyone else of her justification for self-murder.
There are other moments, though, when she lingers over a scene that Plath has replayed a million times in her head. These are the ones that really hurt, and Torn delivers them savagely, in a voice that seems to echo the quirky, venomous humor that was her mother’s brilliant stock-in-trade. Eerie.