“Force of Nature,” the clever new play by the remarkably prolific Steven Dietz, is one of those savvy period adaptations that provides an erudite evening of old-fashioned theater while simultaneously offering an audience a decent helping of contemporary relevance. Concerned with the timeless morality (or lack thereof) of extra-marital affairs, this smart new take on Goethe’s “Elective Affinities” should have a bright future on nonprofit seasons across the country.
While it lacks the sexual sizzle of “The Blue Room,” cheerfully anachronistic period adaptations remain a relatively hot commodity in the Anglo-American theater. Carrying much the same appeal as, say, Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” “Elective Affinities” could do very well in London and would probably also find an appreciative audience Off Broadway, albeit from an older demographic. As has been the case with several of Dietz’s previous works, the Milwaukee Rep has given this show a beautifully designed and well-acted initial production.
This is not merely a new dramatic version of the period text. Although the bulk of the action is set in 1809 and is based on Goethe’s original novella, Dietz has also penned a contemporary outer frame, beginning his drama with a contemplative modern-day fellow who happens to be reading Goethe while on a picnic with family and friends. As he reads, the period action takes over the evening, with the play returning briefly to the present just before the final curtain.
The core issue in the play is the sanctity of marriage vows, with Goethe’s story revolving around a complicated menage a quatre. At the center of the drama are Charlotte and Edward (well played by Laura Gordon and Andrew May), a seemingly happy pair of well-heeled aristocrats.
The couple’s bliss comes apart when a third and fourth party are introduced into the marital mix. Edward’s old friend, a military man named the Captain (James Pickering), falls in love with Charlotte and she with him. Meanwhile, Charlotte invites a hypnotic young orphan named Ottilie (Kirsten Potter) into their home. Edward and Ottilie also fall in love.
From that point onward, Dietz explores such thorny notions as whether or not people can control the forces of passion (hence the title), and whether the discovery of extra-marital joy inherently requires the dissolution of the official union.
As a way of further exploring these issues, Goethe and Dietz include a bevy of minor characters, including a schoolteacher who’s in love with Ottilie; a meddling moralist anxious to preserve the marriage at all costs; and a pair of passionate but unhappy aristocratic lovers forced to conceal their mutual affection because of societal demands that they remain in their loveless marriages.
Although this play is written in a heightened style (it can seem a little precious at times), the narrative contains all of Dietz’s trademark metatheatrical touches — clever asides to the audience, characters revealing emotions they do not actually speak, and an overall dramatic sense of fluidity.
The play would be better overall if Dietz had further developed the outer, contemporary frame. But the Goethe text has been deftly translated to drama here and Joseph Hanreddy’s premiere production features many enjoyable performances, along with a luscious design from Kent Dorsey.
A perennial favorite in the hinterlands, Dietz still lacks a major New York hit. If someone picks up “Force of Nature,” there’s a decent chance of changing that perplexing state of affairs.