Theater Review: “The Swan” — Not Your Average Love Triangle

The Swan is a bold choice for a theater company and demands excellent actors and direction to keep it afloat.

The Swan by Elizabeth Egloff. Directed by Daniel Elihu Kramer. At the Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA, through July 29.

By Helen Epstein

Tracy Liz Miller (Dora), Jacob H Knoll (Kevin), and Joel Ripka (Bill) talk things over in the Chester Theatre Company production of THE SWAN. Photo: Rick Teller

The Chester Theatre Company’s (CTC’s) summer of “uncommon love stories” continues strong with its second production, The Swan by Elizabeth Egloff.

This play dates from 1989, when its playwright was still a grad student, and in many ways, it struck me as a period piece, reminiscent of John Guare and others who mixed realistic drama with fantasy to ambiguous effect. It is also a feminist take on the ancient legend of Leda, married Queen of Sparta, and the god Zeus who, disguised as a Swan, either raped or seduced her. This is one of the more erotic meetings of god and mortal that has inspired poets and painters since the Greeks.

In Egloff’s American, twentieth-century version, which includes some extraordinarily poetic and some quite pedestrian writing, Queen Leda is replaced by Nebraska’s Nurse Dora. In her starchy, white uniform and cap, though, she is an archetypal if not mythical character who evoked for me thoughts of the efficient Nurse Nancy of the Golden Books of my childhood as well as Freud’s neurotic and problematic Dora. Midwestern Dora lives alone in a cheaply furnished home (another of the CTC’s great sets) through which the prairie winds howl and rattle the chimes as well as the the screen door (the witty sound design is almost another character in this production). She has had a series of difficult relationships with men, has little in her refrigerator but old pizza, and is currently involved with another American archetype: the Milkman.

Leda and the Swan: 3rd-century mosaic

The Milkman is named Kevin. He is smitten with Dora and wants to marry her although he has, in addition to his early morning route and other female customers who depend on him, a wife and daughter. Their routine, however, is shattered one night when a swan crashes into Dora’s window and she becomes centered on nursing him back to health and transforming him into her idea of a man.

The Swan is a bold choice for a theater company and demands excellent actors and direction to keep it afloat. I found Tracy Liz Miller and Jacob H. Knoll perfectly cast as Dora and Kevin, the two working class Midwesterners who, exercising true Heartland pragmatism, simply go about their business and adapt to the supernatural event introduced into their lives. Both actors are interesting to watch and listen to: I stayed tuned into their world for the 97 minutes of running time. Joel Ripka, whom I have admired in other CTC productions, gives a virtuoso and athletic performance as the Swan who, over the course of the play, learns to dress, to speak English, to play checkers, and to make love to Nurse Dora. The term “love triangle” will never seem prosaic again.

This is a production that director Daniel Elihu Kramer clearly chose and directed with great affection. All the elements cohere to provide an evening of compelling entertainment and an introduction (for me) to yet another contemporary playwright. Bravo! Can’t wait for Arlene Huttons’s Running.

Helen Epstein is the author of Joe Papp: An American Life and other books about the arts.

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