Cycling Past the Matterhorn
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 27, 2005
There are any number of good reasons that you will want to see Farm Avenue Productions and Joseph Smith's beautifully mounted presentation of Deborah Grimberg's life-affirming play Cycling past the Matterhorn. But the main reason may well be the opportunity to see some of the finest acting in town. The entire cast of five is more than first-rate, and in the three leading roles, Shirley Knight, Brenda Wehle, and Carrie Preston are giving performances that are very special indeed.
Knight plays Esther, a 56-year-old woman who is trying to cope with two simultaneous life crises: her husband Martin has left her for a much younger woman, and she's just learned that she has an irreversible condition that is going to make her blind within a few months. Esther's response to these challenges is, in her words, to re-invent herself: she joins a gym; she has a (very furtive) one-afternoon stand with a neighbor; she joins a cycling club and takes a tour with them of Switzerland. She does all of this despite moments of doubt and not a little wallowing, especially when she's around her daughter, 24-year-old Amy, a young woman who is struggling to come into her own and is very fearful that her mother's loneliness and disability are going to make that harder for her to accomplish.
Amy, played by Preston, supports herself as a psychic; this is the one and only talent that she seems to have, and that talent is the one and only positive thing about Amy that she and Esther seem to agree on. Esther is otherwise hyper-critical about her daughter: everything from the clothes she wears ("I've had shower curtains that hang better than that") to the decisions she's made about her life comes under fire. Amy decides to face her impending crisis—having to care for her demanding mother—by not facing it. Instead she tries to talk Doug, the good-natured American that she's been casually dating, into marrying her and taking her with him to his home in the U.S.
Preston and Knight bring these women to vivid life; they make these difficult and not always easy-to-admire ladies easy to understand and to like, quirks and all. Knight has some moments where her frustrations are so affectingly evident that it's hard not to rush on stage to help her out; she also makes the biggest challenge facing Esther—loneliness—utterly palpable. Preston, meanwhile, shows us Amy's transformation from uncertain kid to assertive young woman, and even seems to physically change in the process, exuding a radiance and inner beauty in the play's final scenes that somehow weren't there before.
Their chemistry together is terrific; we always believe that they're mother and daughter.
Filling out the family is Brenda Wehle as Esther's sister Anita. One of those loquacious, savvy, lived-in older women who can always be relied upon, Anita offers counsel, commentary, and occasionally more practical support to her sister, always in inspired lower-middle-class world-weary fashion. Wehle inhabits this woman; her way with a wisecrack means that she often threatens to steal the show from her co-stars, but her centered pragmatism anchors the character and the family so that's ultimately indispensable but not over-the-top. The scene that opens the second act, in which Knight's Esther knits while Wehle's Anita does the daily crossword, chattering inanely about this and that, is the show's emotional center—the performances here are so assured and natural that it's like spying on real sisters in a real kitchen. And it moves us just the way that something that ordinary and candid should.
Ben Fox is immensely likable as Amy's good-natured boyfriend, who helps her figure out how to grow up; Nina Jacques is remarkably natural as Joanne, one of Amy's clients, who is often around solely for comic relief but who also, in her way, abets Amy on her journey. Of course, it's the interplay between mother and daughter that finally allows each to find their way, and Grimberg's script is wonderfully positive without being cloying or inauthentic. Knight has a splendid second act speech in which she recalls the eponymous bike trip that gave her the confidence and insight to move on with her life, and it's to the actress's (and playwright's) credit that we're left wondering if this actually occurred, or if she just "invented" it, to bolster her belief in her re-invented self. This is finally the great strength of Grimberg's play—that it has the complexity and depth of real life; nothing's pat here, despite a great deal of incident.
Eleanor Holdridge has staged the play with deft economy on a very spare set by Beowulf Boritt. Kiki Smith's costumes are a highlight, particularly the offbeat ensembles worn by Amy and the thrifty chic affected by Anita (don't miss the earrings!).
Cycling past the Matterhorn is intimate, and comfortable within its small confines. It's a warm, honest slice of life of the type seldom put on stage these days. In the very capable hands of Knight, Wehle, Preston, and company, it's a real treat.