Central to Cynthia Ozick’s first play is the image of a starving 15-month-old girl kicked by a blackboot against the electrified security fence around the concentration camp at Auschwitz “like a butterfly touching a silver vine,” as her mother watches in silent grief, knowing that to betray any response would be suicidal.
One suspects it was that infant with “pencil legs” wobbling to her feet for the first time, gabbling her first syllables –“Maaaa … aaa!”– that drew director Sidney Lumet back to the stage for the first time in 30 years, and which gave an all-star cast reason to take a chance, as well, on a premiere staging.
“Blue Light” has been in development for several years under the auspices of producer Kathy Levin (and, more recently, David Brown, her partner in the Broadway and pic productions of “A Few Good Men”) and has generated considerable interest regarding a transfer to N.Y.
While there are several harrowing moments in this unformed yet oddly formulaic work, none matches the power of Dianne Wiest’s heartbreaking recitation, late in the second act, of the occurrence at Auschwitz that has led her to a life of bitterness, anger and despair — relieved only by the blue shawl that at once connects her with that terrible event and allows her “visits” from the dead child.
Our response to that horrific scene in the camp has been somewhat tempered in recent years by everything from Steven Spielberg’s re-creation of the camps to news accounts from Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia.
But when it was published as a short story in the New Yorker in the late ’70s under the title “The Shawl,” and followed by the longer “Rosa,” a portrait of the mother gone mad 30 years later in Brooklyn, Ozick — whose voice is distinctly Jewish-American, full of echoes and lament — proved a bellwether for a new Holocaust literature focusing on survivors.
In the years since, Ozick’s concerns have become more political, expanded not only by the genocidal atrocities reported in each morning’s paper, but also with the rise of Holocaust revisionism.
“Blue Light” is set mostly in the modest Miami rest home where Rosa (Wiest) has been sent
by her niece, Stella (Mercedes Ruehl). Also a survivor of Auschwitz, Stella has grown up to become a character out of Tennessee Williams (though not that Stella) — middle-aged, unmarried, electric with desire but hidden in the long-sleeved dresses covering the numbers on her arm.
At the home, Rosa stolidly fends off a friendly former button manufacturer (Bob Dishy). Bathed in blue light, she lapses into reveries about the child and life in the Warsaw ghetto.
Back home in Queens, Stella is visited by a bread-belt academic named Globalis (D.B. Sweeney), who seduces her with mindless aphorisms.
In Miami, Globalis sets a sinister snare for Rosa. He begs her to tell him about the baby, and she lets the story flow. Globalis produces a document for Rosa to sign admitting that the baby — along with most of her experiences at Auschwitz — are a fantasy.
It has taken over two hours to get to the point where Globalis’ intent becomes clear and the zombie-like affect of Sweeney’s performance finally begins to make some sense, but the role then quickly dissolves into a rant.
Wiest is a revelation in an empathic, warm performance. And while Stella is underwritten, Ruehl uses every opportunity to prop up the role.
Stephen Pearlman is endearing as a resident of the home we don’t particularly need to hear from. Tech credits are basic but fine. And while Lumet makes the scenes flow nearly effortlessly, he has yet to sort out the shifts among scenes set in the present, the near present and the past.
For all its flaws, “Blue Light” is a serious play about important issues; pulsing with humanity and passion, it may yet find a life that honors its sources.