'The Breath of Life'

Pretty windy at times, but a step above the melodramatic norm.

“You need this scene,” says Jane Alexander’s Madeleine, a free-spirited woman who finds herself challenged in “The Breath of Life” by the ex-wife of the man with whom she had a long affair. The husband has moved on to a younger American wife but his ex, Stockard Channing’s Frances, is seeking understanding, closure or perhaps just material for her next book. Or, in David Hare’s case, a new play.

The two-hander tries to breathes new life into the age-old square-off between spouse and mistress. (“It’s not exactly ‘War and Peace,’ ” deadpans Madeleine.) But much as he did with another thrust-and-parry relationship drama, “Skylight,” Hare provides a broader social and political dynamic to his characters’ backstory, and a philosophical conundrum in their present situation.

This can make “Breath” pretty windy at times, but it certainly keeps it a step above the melodramatic norm. Make that a big step as his empowered but vulnerable women (one more than the other) get downright existential about their roles and purpose in life and letters while each seeks out her own separate truth.

Watching Alexander and Channing have a go at these smart, self-aware and keenly observed women is also a treat for auds, and could punch the ticket for a Gotham transfer, especially with additional time for the thesps to feel more secure with character and text. At the very least, the show will be an A-lister for regionals looking for something literate, compelling and appealing for its female auds.

The play premiered in London in 2002, directed by Howard Davies and starring Maggie Smith as Madeleine with Judi Dench as Frances, providing juicy roles for the battling dames. The Westport Country Playhouse production, helmed with sensitive attention to every give and take by Mark Lamos, also has its moments. But it’s not an easy task to provide clarity in “the wreck of memory” as characters try to sort out failed marriages, dashed ideals, literary values and the meaning of life during this compact long night’s journey into day.

Madeline, getting on in years, now lives on the isolated Isle of Wight off the English coast, a slow-moving place that suits her current state just fine. Popular novelist Frances arrives at her door, seeking … well, we aren’t sure at first — or even later, really. Certainly Madeleine, after a long session of squaring the past with the present, finds herself exasperated: “What the hell is it that you want?”

As both women recount their past and present narratives, Hare does a skillful job of layering meanings and motives, keeping everything lively with quips, stings and epigrams, mostly from Madeleine. “The worst thing about living in the past is that you always know what’s going to happen.” Or, “The problem with fiction is that it isn’t true.”

We learn that Madeleine met English lawyer Martin when both Brits were in Alabama during the civil rights protests of the early ’60s. Their single night of lovemaking would have been a distant memory if it weren’t for a chance meeting between the two many years later when Martin was married to Frances. A long affair commenced.

Alexander infuses the independent Madeleine with energy and snap, even as she favors autumnal fabrics and a more reclusive, slower-paced existence. (Michael Yeargan dresses her home in the eclectic good taste of a free-spirited arts curator, but it’s a bit too neat for Frances’ comment concerning how messy Madeleine’s housekeeping is.)

Clever and opinionated — American sensibilities particularly get skewered — Alexander’s Madeleine appears steadfast in her politics and philosophy, refusing to be defined — or used — by others, only to be shattered in a stunning moment where mind and heart, life and love, collide.

In the less showy part, Channing holds focus with a combination of her character’s resolve, vulnerability and cunning. She portrays a simpler, less worldly woman without compromise of intelligence or depth of feeling, someone who is just trying to get through life “with daily acts of kindness” but one who is capable of revenge with an Amazonian bestseller.

In the end, we find both characters are more similar than they might seem at first and by dawn’s light, they both step out into the new day, breathing freer with much to think about. As does the audience, even if they may be scratching their heads at the same time.

The Breath of Life

Westport Country Playhouse, Westport, Conn.; 575 seats; $55 top

Production

A Westport Country Playhouse presentation of a play in two acts by David Hare. Directed by Mark Lamos.

Creative

Sets, Michael Yeargan; costumes, Martin Pakledinaz; lighting, Robert Wierzel; original music and sound, Greg H. Hennigan; production stage manager, Lloyd David Jr. Opened, reviewed, Oct. 3, 2009. Runs through Oct. 17. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.

Cast

Madeleine Palmer - Jane Alexander Frances Beale - Stockard Channing

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