Gertrude Stein And A Companion at the Jungle Theater

Claudia Wilkens and Barbara Kingsley In Gertrude Stein And A Companion. Photo by Michal Daniel.

Claudia Wilkens and Barbara Kingsley In Gertrude Stein And A Companion. Photo by Michal Daniel.

How could Claudia Wilkens and Barbara Kingsley have played these roles in 1992, when the two actors were 14 and 12 years old, respectively? The characters Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas demand substance, solidity combined with lightness of touch, maturity, quiet self-assured power and now, in 2015, Wilkens and Kingsley have the above qualities, in spades, and together they make Gertrude Stein And A Companion (now in its 8th iteration at the Jungle Theater, through March 8) a joy.

Kingsley: rail thin, bent with age, grieving at her beloved partner’s passing, face alive with love, eyes flashing with passion. Her Toklas shuffles with a dreamy determined focus. And her hands: misshapen, expressive, fluttering, giddy, light and youthful. I couldn’t take my eyes off them and when I couldn’t see her hands I watched Kingsley herself. Her impish grin thrilled.

And Wilkens: playing Stein with an affecting combination of pride in a life well-lived and intense sorrow at leaving the (less helpless than she seems) Toklas behind, in gentile poverty. Stein lived large, friendly with famous artists (Picasso)  and writers (Hemingway and Fitzgerald). She was a founder of the “Lost Generation,” an accomplished writer in her own right (Stein penned the terrific The Autobiography Of Alice B. Toklas). Wilkens and the play present this effectively. Wilkens is a large woman, but it’s her genius (and it’s a major one) to combine size with delicacy and and understated presence. As Stein, Wilkens is perfection personified, madly in love with Toklas, sitting upon her throne-like chair, always smiling.

In Gertrude Stein And A Companion the late (he died in 1983) playwright Win Wells has hit on an inspired conceit: the action of the play takes place after Stein’s death (in 1946, age 72). This lends the play considerable energy, as Toklas struggles to come to terms with Stein (essentially a ghost)’s ongoing presence in her life. Toklas speaks to her departed partner: Should I sell this painting? That painting? Which of your books should I publish first? “I thought we would go together,” she says. “A bomb. What now?” Lovely.

Much more problematic, imho, is the play’s past tenseness: Gertrude Stein And A Companion is a “bioplay.” Wells’s canvas is huge; action starts in 1907 and ends in 1967 and this expansiveness requires a lot of static storytelling. Actors don (literally) hats and become other characters. The play is distressingly prosaic. I wanted a more Cubist, stream-of-conciousness vibe. More “Stein-isms.”

But who cares. Wilkens and Kingsley make the hoary and predictable play work. And director Bain Boehlke has had the good sense to cast uber-talented Wilkens and Kingsley and then get out of their way. This is the Jungle vibe: old-fashioned playwriting, brilliant acting. Wonderful.

Next up at the Jungle: Kander and Ebb’s And The World Goes ‘Round, featuring Bradley Greenwald and Tiffany Seymour, directed by the estimable John Command. April.

John Olive is a writer living in Minneapolis. His book Tell Me A Story In The Dark will be published in March. Recently, John has completed a play (an adaptation of The Sisters Eight), a novel (Deep River) and a screenplay (A Slaying Song Tonight). For more information please visit his (recently updated) website.

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