nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
September 8, 2007
Edge is not an easy play, but then Sylvia Plath was not an easy person. Certainly one the most vivid and important writers of the 20th century, Plath came into herself as a writer while having to simultaneously demand her voice and her experience specific to being a woman be taken seriously. Yet, coming as it did just moments before feminist theory and interpretation became articulated and (at least momentarily) accepted, her work is all too often considered only within the filter of the feminist critique. Plath is also frequently mocked as the angst-ridden favorite of agonized teenage girls (remember Woody Allen's crack in Annie Hall: "Oh, Sylvia Plath, whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the schoolgirl mentality"). What is missed is the unapologetic and unadulterated human electricity of her verse, especially against her contemporaries' more restrained and aloof voices. Her work has insistent, bald, sometime outrageous words and phrasings. She didn't simply shoot for effect, she shot to hit the target. Plath was about impact.
Edge portrays Plath on the last day of her life. It presents a fiercely intelligent, angry woman who won't go gentle into any damn good night. One of its strengths is the marvelous dexterity and play with words of Angelica Torn, as well as her honest, easy physicality and inhabiting of emotions. At her most powerful when she is giving voice, Torn is arresting to watch and holds up marvelously in an arduous journey through some of the most difficult moments in Plath's life, a life whose range of pain sets the bar high for difficult.
On stage from the top, Torn moves through the early days and college suicide attempt mostly with an angry matter-of-fact attitude that prevents any deification of the pain or the poet. Her fine work is wonderfully supported by the marvelous lighting of William St. John, who ably defines space and mood. The work has a warts-and-all sort of honesty that, with Torn's skills, can be very compelling to watch.
It was in the aftermath of Plath's suicide attempt where it began to flag for me. Suddenly there is another character being portrayed, Plath's psychiatrist, and a lengthy interaction about Plath's feelings for her father. While Otto Plath was certainly an enormous part of her emotional landscape and the play makes interesting connections to it later, the sequence itself requires an awful lot from the performer and I am unsure as to what value it has for the audience. It takes a fair amount of stage time to make points referenced elsewhere. This is the point where I began to be confused by the shape of the piece itself.
While playwright Paul Alexander obviously knows Plath's story, he builds many interesting constructs with the material, some known fact and some interesting conjecture, but also exceeds that to some very odd speculations—black magic or possession as the cause of death? Beyond that, there is something in the frame of the event that didn't work for me. Sylvia starts from the top being very clear with the audience that it is the last day in her life. She begins to go back through events and, while for no stated reason, she appears to be working something out. And I'll go with that. Yet as the work progresses, she begins to add in comments about things that happen after her death, things she could not possibly have known or expected. This leaves me not knowing where I am—this can't be the last day of her life if she has information about what is ahead. So, is she a ghost, somehow condemned to repeat the torments of her unresolved existence? Is she a spirit trapped in time by the spell which pushed her to kill herself? This backwards-forwards knowledge leaves it unclear as to what is being worked out and why. It also takes the play into the kind of partisan anti-Hughes, pro-Plath commentary which undermines Plath as an artist while also undercutting what seems otherwise to be a strongly experiential interpretation of her life.
The writer and the performer both have a knowledge and affection for Plath that combine to make some very arresting and interesting moments. Edge relies heavily on the experience of being on the edge without necessarily having a full context. It is a difficult and powerful piece about a difficult and powerful woman, well performed.