Embers at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio

Barbara Bryne (Nini) and James A. Stephens (Henrik) in the Guthrie Theater’s production of Embers, by Christopher Hampton. Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp

The Guthrie Theater has opened the third in its series of plays by Christopher Hampton: the American premier of Embers, based on the novel by Sándor Márai as translated by Carol Brown Janeway and directed by Joe Dowling. Beautiful, sad and absorbing, this is a piece to be pondered and savored – a leisurely and delicious meal of several courses, each one more satisfying than the last.

Set in 1940 in a castle in Hungary, the play is largely monologue, delivered with touching elegance by James A. Stephens. For an actor to sustain the emotional intensity and control required of a role of this magnitude is impressive; to accomplish it at its excruciatingly meticulous pace is nothing short of great acting.

The play opens as Henrik’s best childhood friend, Konrad, has returned after disappearing one day decades earlier. This single incident is all we know of why their reunion is thick with their history.  Henrik says his mother told him “You always lose the person you love, and if you can’t bear it, you’re a failure as a human being.” Is this true?

Henrik is a retired Austro-Hungarian General and an avid hunter. Konrad (Nathaniel Fuller) was not of Henrik’s class and had little money, much like Henrik’s beautiful and beloved wife, Krisztina. Konrad’s return is not required for most of the answers that have defined the remainder of Henrik’s life, but Henrik has anticipated Konrad’s return someday, and he’s ready. With just two more questions.

The one puzzlement in this production is Konrad’s lack of response to the amazing story unfolding. In fact, we’re given virtually nothing of a personality. He’s a person in a chair who says very little, whose body language, even, is mute. At some point, it’s clear that it doesn’t matter very much, really, but it’s odd to watch a person on stage for that length of time and leave knowing so little about what he thinks and feels.

Barbara Bryne appears at the beginning and the end of the play as Nini, Henrik’s housekeeper. Her role is small, but her importance in the larger picture is quite significant. Bryne is virtually perfect.

This play will make you want to read it, or read it again, after you’ve seen it, and it will most certainly generate back orders of Márai’s short novel at bookstores in town. There’s just so much to consider – and the language is so perfect for what it has to say.

It is a story of deep love and betrayal, but it is at least as much about honor, suggesting parallels with Márai’s own life. Márai was a prolific writer, but refused to let his books be published in his native Hungary while Soviet troops occupied it, which sealed his impoverishment and obscurity later in life.

“Why,” we ask, right up to the last line of Act I, has this one incident so consumed the protagonist for his entire life? What is it about him and his childhood friend, Konrad, and Henrik’s beautiful wife that haunts him? It is what you may think, but it quite a lot more in the hands of a fine novelist and in the sensitive and intelligent dramatization by Hampton.

When we did not immediately crowd into the aisles as the house lights came up, one could imagine that we all felt the same thing: “Wait! I’m not done thinking about all this!”

Embers runs through October 27 in the Dowling Studio, in the round.

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