In the summer of 200X I dragged my friend Groucho to see Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Passion at Ravinia, starring Loops and Michael Cerveris and Audra McDonald, and the only thing I remember her saying on the car ride home is “There's not one thing to like about any of those people.”
True enough! Passion is a gnarly beast, snappish, divisive, ornery, and weird. Years and years ago I would play the DVD of the original cast on a loop, marveling at Donna Murphy with that hair, that mole, that peerless consumptive phrasing, Jere Shea's muddled stupefaction, the architecture of Marin Mazzie's jaw—while wondering how on earth this show ever succeeded in a commercial theater on Broadway (“succeeded” being a relative term; it is apparently the shortest-running musical ever to win the Tony). It's the ultimate rom-com inverse, drab and dark and gloomy, all edges and shadows, with a message that absolute devotion can inspire love—or drive it into the ground like a mallet—without ever bringing joy.
To wit: an ugly woman loves a beautiful man who's in love with a beautiful woman. Or so they believe. Through the sheer force of "passion," the idea of beauty turns a crooked corner as the man learns to see beyond the limits of his own vision, spurning the woman he thought he loved for the woman who loves him. (cf. Sunday in the Park with George: "Pretty isn't beautiful, Mother / Pretty is what changes / What the eye arranges / Is what is beautiful.")
Love, too, means something else here, not so much affinity as possession, or persistence, or something in the water. Both relationships resemble not pleasure but suffocation: "Love that shuts away the world / That envelops my soul"; "Loving you is why I do the things I do / Loving you is not in my control." i.e., love is the neck and passion the noose. Hence this is not a show for the faint of heart, the claustrophobic, or the easily bored.
And Groucho was right: these characters are a tough nut to crack. Fosca's stuck in a swan dive of neuroses, neediness, and self-pity, prone to epileptic fits and an early demise from an unnamed disease, yet she's also the aggressor, armed with a preternatural death grip and mercenary instincts. Clara is the married mother of a young son, unable to commit and unwilling to let go, and Giorgio is passive to the point of being comatose. There's no one to like, no one to empathize with, and no one to root for. Which is not the sort of thing we give prizes for in America.
And yet. Yet! The joy is that it exists at all, in such uncompromising form, an aching heart beating right there in your hand. If you're willing to tuck your fanny into your booster seat at the Classic Stage Company and tune into the story's gothic screwball frequency, you'll find there's a lush, hypnotic effect at work, in the music as well as John Doyle's elegant staging: the constant shuffling on and off, up and down, the drumming and humming of the soldiers, the echoing call-and-answer of the lyrics, that feeling of being pushed without effort towards an unstoppable end. (How else could it end? With a wedding? With real estate?)
Judy Kuhn's Fosca is both desperate and cunning, a clawing spectre who seems to grow physically larger onstage as her obsession consumes the very air around her, and Melissa Errico is her perfect opposite, Clara's beauty turning hollow-eyed as her fortunes change, unaccustomed to being adrift and alone. Ryan Silverman has a gorgeous voice and manages to find a soul inside the cipher, although Giorgio remains a boring role—the done-to always has less to play than the doer. The production itself is one of those hushed, intimate, drum-tight affairs that had me scoring half-moons inside each palm to keep from sobbing out loud, and wondering, when I stepped outside again, why the rest of the world seemed not to have noticed a thing.
PASSION: Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Lapine. Directed by John Doyle. With Judy Kuhn, Ryan Silverman, and Melissa Errico. Playing at Classic Stage Company through April 7.