Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector (1920-1977) seems to be, in the English-speaking world anyway, more read about than read. A new stage adaptation of her award-winning 1943 debut novel Near to the Wild Heart held out the promise of an intensive brief encounter with the woman considered, in Brittanica’s words, “among the greatest women writers of the 20th century.”
Why, though, among the greatest “women” writers? I imagine this description would trouble Lispector herself. Yet as depicted in the play, the somewhat autobiographical character of Joana defines herself too much in the context of the men in her life.
If that were a tragic flaw, it would be one thing. But it doesn’t end up adding up to anything substantial. Of course, one shouldn’t expect a drama of great narrative thrust to come out of a stream-of-consciousness literary work, especially one about an intensely self-obsessed girl and woman. I did, however, envision something diverting and emotionally resonant. The New Stage Theatre Company production mostly strikes out on both counts.
It does boast a strong and focused central performance by Sarah Lemp, who has also done excellent work with The Amoralists. She plays Joana as a creative young spirit who grows up to face a series of adult disappointments, with little to defend her but the richness of her inner life.
Some of the supporting cast turns in solid performances too, including Ken Raboy as her distracted but loving father and Gina Bonati as her showy aunt.
Illustrated through narration, artsy black-and-white film projections, abstract staging, and “interpretive” aerial dancing, the depiction of Joana’s childhood captures attention. Lemp gives us a Joana convincingly beset by the sorts of existential angst more associated with adulthood. What if I do become happy, she asks – then what? I.e. what’s the point of it all? Looking in turn to her father, her unhelpful aunt, and a sympathetic teacher, she finds no real answers.
Then she meets Otávio, who becomes her husband. As soon as he appears, the play’s already-fragile momentum vanishes. For one thing, Markus Hirnigel brings nothing to the role. There is no magnetism to explain why he would earn the devotion of his girlfriend Lidia (an appealing turn by Katalin Ruzsik), let alone captivate Joana’s searching heart.
Hirnigel’s colorless performance is only part of the problem, though. In this telling, Joana’s adult life doesn’t contain anything interesting for us to gather. She evolves from a troubled child to a listless and droopy adult, inspired by visions of a “woman with a voice” yet never seeming to find hers. And Joana is really all we have. So the story itself, such as it is, goes limp despite Lemp’s hard work. There’s no payoff, either for Joana or for us.
As such, the show isn’t a good introduction to Clarice Lispector. It doesn’t serve the author well. Some novels, of course, are hard to translate to the stage. This attempt, despite its multimedia presentation and excellent lead performance (and great costumes), feels more like a gussied-up reading of selections from the book than an experience of a protagonist’s life in the flesh, which is what we seek from the theater. Sadly, it’s not a page-turner.
Near to the Wild Heart runs through December 21 and returns January 26-28, 2020. Tickets are available online.