Talk about a hard act to follow! Coming awfully soon after Meryl Streep’s Oscar-nominated turn as Julia Child in “Julie & Julia,” rising Chicago theater company TimeLine presents a new play covering much the same historical timeframe (sans the contempo Julie Powell storyline) and the same leading characters. And yet, without the assistance that comes with film – multiple takes and makeup, not to mention padding – actress Karen Janes Woditsch nobly embodies the famed chef, author and television personality in an exceedingly likable and convincing performance.
The play, “To Master the Art,” is the theater’s first commission, which was given prior to the release of the film. But it puts its focus on the very same period of time, when Julia Child arrived in post-war Paris with her husband, Paul, an artist working as a government information officer, and discovered food as both passion and vocation. Set mostly in Julia’s home kitchen, the play by William Brown and Doug Frew is a bit talky and workmanlike, but it combines the right ingredients to depict the story of a genuinely interesting but initially insecure middle-aged woman coming fully into her own.
And, to the credit of all, the play seems like it was really written for Woditsch, a tall actress who tones down Child’s eccentricities and makes her feel remarkably real. The performance doesn’t have quite the same joie-de-vivre as Streep’s but it’s terrific work: Woditsch makes Child both someone people are drawn to and someone who seems intrinsically American to the French and slightly different to Americans.
As Paul, Craig Spidle is also excellent, capturing the age difference with his wife more effectively than the film did, and depicting with sensitivity both the weight of McCarthyism on his shoulders and his support for Julia’s endeavors.
The ensemble plays a host of roles – the teachers and fellow chefs and friends who played such an important part in the early makings of an icon, and they’re all good, with particular credit due to Jeannie Affelder as writing partner Simone Beck.
Directed by Brown, the production touches on the one element that could probably make this a break-out hit, but doesn’t go far enough. There are a couple of moments when we smell real onions on that stove. Incorporating more live cooking into the show would make it a far more sensual experience. As is, we have to make due with cliche moments of Woditsch tasting food as music swells in the background to signal revelation. The fact that Woditsch pulls this off makes the performance Streep-ian.