Friday, July 28, 2017

THE FERRYMAN at the Gielgud Theatre - secrets in Troubles times...

2017 was already shaping up to be a great year for theatre and now Jez Butterworth's THE FERRYMAN has confirmed it.  Butterworth has already shown with JERUSALEM that he could write for a large cast but here that includes 21 speaking roles as well as a baby, a goose and a bunny!!

Despite it's roughly-agreed thirty year span, how many plays have directly addressed The Troubles in Northern Ireland?  Bearing in mind how deep it ran in both Ireland and the UK's collective psyche it cannot be said to have populated the main stages of the West End, the fringe maybe, cinema occasionally, the West End no. 

But Jez Butterworth has taken the queasy atmosphere in 1981 Northern Ireland and filtered it through a classic tragedy-style plot where the sins of the past come back to haunt those still living, both innocent and guilty.  But within that framework there is also a stunted love story, comedy, tension, poetry, swearing, 80s pop, the insidious nature of teenage peer-pressure and the constant undertow of nationalist resentment.

Dawn breaks as a couple are playing drunken what-if games in a cottage kitchen, they obviously have a special, easy relationship with each other but we soon find out, as the rest of the extended family wake up and enter the kitchen, that they are brother-in-law and sister-in-law and the oncoming harvest will change their relationship forever.

The very first scene sets a lingering discordant note: Father Horrigan is having a secret meeting with Muldoon, a man who exudes a chilly power.  A body has been discovered in a peat bog, hands tied, shot in the head.  The priest identifies him as a member of the Carney family.  The man's brother Quinn was once an IRA 'soldier' but renounced them at the time of his brother's disappearance to run his father's farm in the countryside with his wife, seven children and extended family.  Muldoon blackmails the priest to go to the farm and persuade Quinn not to make waves.

Quinn and his wife Mary had invited sister-in-law Caitlin to move into their home with her son Oisin ten years ago and has made herself indispensable to the family, with Mary retreating for longer periods to her bedroom claiming illness, Caitlin has assumed the role of homemaker.  She has never given up the hope that her husband is alive in England, having been fed with rumours of sightings.  

The rambling farmhouse is also home to aunts Maggie and Pat, uncle Patrick, and also Tom, a simple-minded Englishman who have lived with the family since being discovered as a child lost and disheveled.  Aunt Maggie has dementia but her lucid moments are shot through with a strange mysticism, Aunt Pat is a hardline Republican with a venal streak toward Caitlin who is wrestling with her deepening affection for Quinn who, in turn, is trying to hide his feelings for her now Mary is growing colder towards him.

All this is disrupted when Father Horrigan arrives with his painful news which sends Quinn and Caitlin into shock.  She tells Quinn that she will wait till the harvest has been collected before telling her son but Oisin overhears them and is plunged into despair.  The harvest is gathered, helped by their three young Corcoran cousins, but the celebrations are interrupted by the appearance of Muldoon, greeted as a hero by Aunt Pat and at arm's length by Quinn.  

Muldoon reveals his real interest in the Carney family, the news of the IRA hunger strikers dying has given them massive public sympathy and it would be counter-productive for Quinn or Caitlin to announce that the IRA murder their own.  The political and the personal erupt into a night of growing tensions and betrayals before an explosion of violence that will scar the family forever... 

Sam Mendes's production is a masterpiece of delayed tension; it's always there running under the action, you are just never sure when it will erupt - will it be the internal family pressure that explodes into violence or will it be external world that blows the family apart?  However it is both that leads the stage at the end to resemble a Jacobean tragedy.  I must admit the ultimate sudden bloodbath made me think of David Cronenberg's A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE which pulled my focus; the violence is necessary but I hoped it might be reached through the insidious emotional pressure of Aunt Pat and Mary.

But THE FERRYMAN is it's own entity and it's sheer breadth of invention and dramatic sweep belies it's rural farmhouse look - it also feels more of a whole than JERUSALEM which was powered by it's larger-than-life central character of 'Rooster', here Quinn is almost the still centre of the vortex with his family providing a non-stop array of vividness.  As Quinn, Paddy Considine is never less than watchable, his remarkable capacity for submerged hurt and anger is never far away, in this his stage debut.

Considine's slow-burn performance is all the more remarkable in that he is surrounded by actors playing to the back of the balcony - but in a good way!  Sam Mendes has assembled an excellent cast who all contribute much to the play's success.

It is a production that for once boasts four key female roles, all played wonderfully: Laura Donnelly gives a quietly luminous performance as Caitlin, trapped by circumstance in Quinn's family but unwilling to move on for her love of him; her final scenes of desperation ring shockingly true, willing to accept the most degrading of circumstances to save her beloved and his family.  Her scenes with Genevieve O'Reilly as Quinn's wife Mary were shot through with tension, a sisterly relationship which is undercut with feelings of bitter antagonism and jealousy.

This uneasy relationship is further undermined by the marvellously devious aunt Pat played with icy fury by Dearbhla Molloy, here looking like a dessicated husk of a woman.  Pat is the rural queen of the killer put-down and the laughs she easily wins from the audience tend to die on the lips when you realize how venal she is, yet she is given a believable history of devotion to the Cause through witnessing the death of her brother, killed defending the Post Office in Dublin during the Easter Rising.

Her counterpoint is Brid Brennan's aunt Maggie who for long stretches of the play simply stares from her chair in the kitchen but who wakes from her reveries occasionally to deliver truths learnt on her internal journeys in her mind.  It was marvellous to see these two exceptional Irish actresses given such fine roles to play.

Des McAleer is very good as the comical and understanding uncle Patrick with a fondness for Greek myths, while Stuart Graham is frightening as Muldoon, the softly-spoken IRA chief who understands the weaknesses within the Carney family all too well.  There is fine work too from John Hodgkinson as Tom Kettle, the simple-minded displaced Englishman who provokes a catalogue of disasters when he clumsily proposes to Caitlin hours after she learns she is a widow, and from the always dependable Gerard Horan as the blackmailed Father Horrigan.

At the start of the third act, Quinn's two sons have an early hours drink with their Corcoran cousins which turns more menacing as they show that they are ready to stumble into tragedy themselves.  The feeling of lives about to take a turn down the wrong road was expertly conveyed and in particular I liked the very believable filial performances of the Corcoran cousins: Séan Basil Crawford - as the oldest Shane, already in too deep with the IRA - Conor MacNeill and Oliver Finnegan.

The farmhouse was wonderfully evoked in Rob Howell's cluttered, lived-in set and Peter Mumford's excellent lighting illuminated the 24 hours that devastate the Carney family.

THE FERRYMAN has nagged away at me since I saw it and will for some time to come - I urge you to see this tender and terrifying tale of hidden love and hidden lies.  It's playing at the Gielgud Theatre until the 6th of January.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

TWILIGHT SONG at Park Theatre - Echoes of a Summer's night...

After the recent reading of Martin Sherman's BENT at the Lyttelton, there was a Q&A with Sherman and director Stephen Daldry and a member of the audience asked them if any gay play in the 38 years since BENT's first production had made a big impression on them. I was surprised that they both shined the question on; Daldry took the opportunity to promote a new two-part play that he is directing next year at the Young Vic and Sherman said there were too many.

I had hoped that Kevin Elyot's sublime MY NIGHT WITH REG would be mentioned, particularly as Elyot, when an actor, had appeared in Martin Sherman's play about Isadora Duncan WHEN SHE DANCED at the Globe Theatre, while Daldry was Artistic Director at the Royal Court when the play was produced.  In passing, not to mention ANGELS IN AMERICA was surprising too as they were sitting on the set for it's current revival!

MY NIGHT WITH REG was revived in a wonderful production three years ago at the Donmar but tragically Kevin Elyot died two months before it's opening and now his final play TWILIGHT SONG is being presented at north London's Park Theatre.  As in his plays REG, THE DAY I STOOD STILL and MOUTH TO MOUTH, Elyot again plays with the concept of time, moving forward and back over months and years to disclose the quiet desperation and gnawing secrets that his mostly-reserved characters are trying to live with.

TWILIGHT SONG takes place in prime Elyot territory: a ground floor living room in a large North London house which belongs to Barry Gough and his mother Isabella who seem locked in a strange, resentful existence.  In his 50s, Barry has taken early retirement to mooch about the house that is sinking into disrepair.  He has invited estate agent Skinner to look around it as he is thinking of downsizing.  After revealing that Skinner grew up in Australia with his father who moved there from England the conversation takes an unexpected turn that, although married, he occasionally fucks for money, men or women.  Barry hesitatingly asks if he would do it to him and after some brutal negotiating Skinner agrees...

The action then moves back to the same room in the summer of 1960, where Isabella and her husband Basil are entertaining two older friends, Uncle Charles and his army friend Harry before going out to La Caprice while outside the garden is being laid.  While alone Charles attempts to kiss Harry who brusquely rebuffs him. Charles is unhappy that they no longer have a secretive sex life but Harry refuses to acknowledge it, he is a father now and a successful solicitor.

Seven years later, a pregnant Isabella and Basil are again going out to dinner with Charles but much has changed; Isabella is bored with Basil and confesses to Charles that the father of her unborn child is a working-class man she once had an affair with while Charles reveals his secret sorrow that he refused to financially help Harry who turned to him for help because he was being blackmailed by a younger man.  Faced with personal disgrace Harry killed himself...

We ricochet back to the night of Barry's meeting with Skinner when an aged and drunken Isabella returns from her weekly visit to a spiritualist.  She is desperately trying to find out what happened to her younger son, the one she was pregnant with by the secret lover, who vanished while still a toddler from the house. Although bickering, it is obvious that Barry still yearns for the maternal love that was lavished on his missing brother.

One last time Elyot takes us back in time, to the same night when Basil, Isabella, Charles and Harry were off to La Caprice... the gardener working outside walks in and catches Isabella alone and their conversation turns to flirtation - just like the scene between Barry and Skinner - and he roughly kisses her.  They are interrupted by Harry and it transpires that the gardener knows Harry as well, he is the blackmailer...

Director Anthony Banks certainly keeps the 75 minute production running along nicely, maintaining the thread of inner sorrow that runs through the characters' lives taut while James Cotterill's simple stage design was effective.  Sadly the play itself seemed to be just off the beat; Elyot was obviously struggling with it's plotting and both the obvious and hidden connections seem finally to be too forced, there were so many crossed lines going on between the relatively few main characters that I missed the one Owen spotted - that Skinner is probably Barry's lost brother.  I am sure Elyot could have given it a re-write had there been time allowed him.

There were particularly fine performances from Hugh Ross as Uncle Charles, saddled with his secret sorrow, and Adam Garcia was great fun as the ever-surprising Skinner but as the catalyst character of the gardener he revealed the fact that Elyot has him there just to link the secrets, there is no real humanity there.  Paul Higgins was effective as the emotionally-stunted Barry but again he revealed the character of Basil to be merely a cypher.  Sadly Bryony Hannah was one-note as Isabella and was totally at sea when she had to age up to being 75 years-old.

There was enough within TWILIGHT SONG to maintain interest and a minor Kevin Elyot play is still worth one's time but what I was ultimately left with is the sadness that there will be no more plays from him now...

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

TURANDOT at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden - I didn't sleep!

Back to the Opera House, Covent Garden... but not for ballet!  Only three months after seeing Puccini's MADAMA BUTTERFLY on that marvellous stage, we were back to see the maestro's final opera TURANDOT,  yes... the one with *that* aria.

As soon as Giacomo Puccini committed to writing the opera in early 1920, he raced ahead of his librettists Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni and by December, when they delivered their first draft, the composer was drumming his fingers, eager to fit the music he had written into the plot line.  But the opera's birth was a protracted affair, with characters being re-written and the plot streamlined but in 1924 the opera looked completed.

However the ending of the story proved problematic and Puccini remained unhappy with the plot and his contribution to it, but his own final act was fast approaching; he was diagnosed in October with throat cancer and, unaware of the full extent of his illness, he died in pain one month later.  With TURANDOT still not completed, the task was given to composer Franco Alfano but the first attempt was rejected as too wide of what Puccini would have wanted and a shorter version was finally accepted.

However at the very first production at La Scala in 1926, the composer Toscanini stopped after the onstage death of the character Liu and addressed the audience that this was the last music composed by Puccini as the curtain fell.  However the subsequent performances included the Alfano ending and that is how the opera is performed.

TURANDOT made it's London debut the following year at Covent Garden and has played regularly ever since; the current production was first seen in Los Angeles in 1984 when the Royal Opera appeared at the Cultural Olympiad and we saw the 277th production of it!  Again I think it's remarkable - and somewhat alarming - how long productions stay in both the opera and ballet repertoires at Covent Garden.  I guess it shows how much new productions cost to stage...

That said, Andrei Serban's production (revived here by Andrew Sinclair) is wonderfully vivid and moves like a train through the simple plot: Calaf, the disguised Prince of Tartary is reunited with his deposed father King Timur who has only his slave girl Liu to look after him, needless to say Liu has always loved the Prince from afar.  They are reunited in Peking which is ruled by the beautiful Princess Turandot who has set a heavy price on any man who would marry her.

Like the Sphynx, the icy Turandot asks the men three impenetrable riddles and are summarily executed in public should they get the questions wrong; the Princess has sworn she will revenge the rape and murder of an earlier Princess in her dynasty on all men who would dare ask her to marry.  Needless to say Calaf falls immediately in love with Turandot and accepts the riddle challenge.  Amazingly he answers the riddles correctly and amid the crowd's jubilation, notices that Turandot remains unmoved.  He offers her a deal: if she can discover his real identity by dawn he will allow himself to be executed...

The story's bloodthirsty theme is playfully evoked by the set being littered and over-hung with large wooden heads showing all the men executed for failing the challenge, the bloody gore represented by long, trailing red ribbons.  The design by Sally Jacobs was a marvellous mix of the simple and the extravagant: the set was a curved two-storey wall which allowed the chorus to stand and watch the plot unravel, with occasional huge set-pieces like a dragon-festooned knife-grinder for the Executioner to ride around on, a pagoda for Calaf to rest during the long night before his possible-execution and a golden throne for the Emperor of Peking to descend from the heavens.

The Opera House orchestra sounded wonderful, making Puccini's ravishing music sweep you along in it's wake, the climax being - as it should be - the third act opener 'Nessun Dorma'.  It was marvellous to hear it in it's proper setting, presaged by a darkened stage being illuminated from behind the wall by light from the palace and large lanterns bobbing around Calaf's pagoda.  I didn't think I would be moved by the aria but I was, understanding it's place in the story-telling made it all the more special and it was excellently sung by Roberto Alagna as Calaf.  The odd thing being that it is so much a part of the story-telling that Calaf is interrupted as soon as he finishes belting out his final 'Vinceró'by three other characters... the urge to clap had to wait until the finale when the Nessun Dorma theme is reprised.

Lise Lindstrom was in imperious form as the icy Turandot but the biggest cheers were reserved for Aleksandra Kurzak as the tragic Liu, her two arias were beautifully sung and she gave her character a real personality which cannot be said for the others thanks to the basic shallowness of the libretto.  I also liked the trio of ministers Ping Pang and Pong who were well sung by Leon Kosavic, Samuel Sakker and David Junghoon Kim.

it's an odd opera, the rushed happy ending (for everyone but Liu and Timur) is not quite believable but Puccini's majestic and thrilling Chinese-influenced score is marvellous and the story, while thin, powers along.  Added to this, a production that is witty and spectacular and you have a real treat.  Now... let's find another Puccini...

Saturday, July 15, 2017

BENT Rehearsed Reading at the Lyttelton Theatre: The Power of Words...

With it's combination of Pride and celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in the England and Wales, last weekend was probably the best time to revisit the thought-provoking and understated horror of Martin Sherman's BENT, staged as a rehearsed reading as part of the National Theatre's celebration of Queer Theatre.

How, I had wondered, would the play fare as a reading; it's a play that thrives on images as well as words, images that linger long in the mind.  But I had reckoned without Stephen Daldrey's insightful and nuanced handling of the text and the exemplary performances of his cast.  In the Q&A afterward he revealed that he had about seven hours in total to rehearse the reading which elicited a gasp of surprise from the audience as it was a seamless performance.

On 14th August 1979, a group of us who worked at Claude Gill Books in Piccadilly went for a night out at the Criterion, our neighbouring theatre.  I am not sure if we knew what the play was about but we emerged poleaxed.  We made for Henekey's pub next door and I remember not only being unable to speak about what I had just seen but being vaguely angry that my straight colleagues were even trying to discuss it.  I wasn't out (but felt I didn't need to be) and it was possibly the first time I had experienced seeing gay men represented as anything other than camp caricatures; this was my first exposure to BENT, seen in it's original production directed by Robert Chetwyn and starring Ian McKellen and Tom Bell.

That production haunted me, in particular the wonderful understated performance of Tom Bell as Horst, contrasting against the usual overly-showy McKellen.  I saw it again in 1990 in Sean Mathias' less-memorable production which again starred Serena opposite the milquetoast Michael Cashman.  Cashman chaired the Q&A afterward and was very eloquent about how that production not only came to be staged initially as a fundraiser to set up the charity Stonewall to fight Section 28 but also how Richard Eyre invited the production to be staged at the National Theatre.

Again talk of that initial fundraiser at the Adelphi in 1989 made me mentally beat myself up about not seeing it as it meant I missed Ian Charleson's performance of club-ower Greta, less than 6 months later he had died.  Cashman spoke fondly about Ian and it always makes me smile when I hear my favourite actor remembered with love.  Mathias' production also led to his 1997 film which is a fairly inert experience.  But that was then and this is now... 

Russell Tovey was excellent as Max, the black sheep of a wealthy family who has found Wiemar Berlin to be his playground: making black-market deals, living on his wits, selling drugs and finding plenty of men to play with despite his relationship with dancer Rudy (sweetly petulant George MacKay).  The play starts out as a comedy with Rudy tartly telling a hungover Max about what he got up to during his drunken binge but the tone darkens when the SS arrive to arrest Max's pickup Wolf who is a member of Ernst Rohm's SA, it's the morning after "The Night of the Long Knives" when Hitler had Rohm's Brownshirts organization liquidized by the SS.  Wolf is murdered and the lovers are on the run.

They turn to Greta, the self-serving owner of the gay club but Greta, although gay, has a wife and children to hide behind, and he even reveals he betrayed them to the SS to deflect attention from his club.  Giles Terera seized all the opportunities the role offers and sang Greta's haunting song "Streets of Berlin" very well, indeed it seemed to linger in the air throughout the play.  Max and Rudy's hopes of escaping to Amsterdam are dashed when Max's closeted Uncle Freddie can only supply a single ticket which Max refuses; in this one small scene, Simon Russell Beale was delicious.

Max and Rudy are finally arrested and deported to Dachau as "Anti-social" members of society.  On the train Rudy is singled out for brutality by an officer (all the SS officers were played with understated terror by Pip Torrens) and Max is made to help beat him to death to prove he means nothing to him.  Max later reveals that he was also forced to have sex with a dead Jewish girl to prove he is not gay and once at the camp wears a yellow star to prove he is a Jew which actually wins him more concessions once in the camp.

There he meets gay political activist Horst (a powerful Paapa Essiedu) who witnessed what happened on the train and who wears a pink triangle and is disgusted that Max is denying his reality.  Max gets Horst onto his mind-numbing but relatively safe work detail of moving rocks from one pile to another next to the camp's electric fence.  Slowly the men prove that love can flourish in the stoniest of ground and Horst even verbally makes love to Max during one of their enforced rest periods standing a few feet apart.  But eventually - and in the worst circumstance - Max must admit to the world and himself that he is a homosexual...

As I said the play for me had lived in memory through it's visuals - Greta's drag act, the shadowy train, the bare stage with it's electrified fence (and constant low-level humming), two piles of rocks and a death-pit as well as the visual shock of Wolf's onstage nudity - but here, with just Sherman's text to concentrate on, it proved riveting and possibly will be the version of the play I most remember.

Martin Sherman spoke about it's history: written for Gay Sweatshop, the artistic director deliberately passed on it so it could be seen by a bigger audience but it was initially rejected by the Royal Court and Hampstead would only stage it with a gay director - none of whom took up the challenge.  Finally picked up by director Robert Chetwyn and with the star names of Ian McKellen and Tom Bell attached, it was finally staged at the Royal Court to huge popular appeal - but still with Court management disapproval and fairly hostile press reviews.  No leading West End producers would touch it until the independant producer Eddie Kulukundis brought it in to the Criterion (which is where I came in!) but only on the proviso from the Society of West End Theatre that it would be gone by December as it would be distasteful to be seen at Christmas time in the West End.  Fairly shameful eh?  Stephen Daldry also commented on the impact the production made on him as a young theatregoer. 

As was also touched on in the after-show discussion, BENT's power to shock and move is ever-timely and there was a hint that there might be a new revival next year.  I am so glad I had the opportunity to see this...

Sunday, July 09, 2017

LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR & GRILL at the Wyndhams - closing time...

Some things should never be passed up.  In May 2016, Audra McDonald was due to make her West End acting debut in Lanie Robertson's LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR & GRILL as Billie Holiday, a role for which she had won not only her 6th Tony Award (making her the most awarded performer for performances, not just honorary awards) but also the first to win in each of the four acting categories.  However that engagement was cancelled as McDonald announced she was pregnant but a year later and she is finally at the Wyndhams so one simply had to go.

I am sure in the late 1950s there was a similar feeling if Billie Holiday was playing dates but probably for the wrong reasons.  Her frequent and very public arrests over her use of narcotics had made her more and more of a liability and in 1947 her card allowing her to play NY clubs was revoked meaning a dramatic loss of income as that was where she could rely on big crowds.

She still performed - even in Europe - but her health deteriorated from her drink and drug addictions and one cannot help but guess that one of the thrills in seeing her onstage was the perverse one of whether she would make it - as was the case with Judy Garland and Amy Winehouse.

Robertson's play imagines a playdate for Billie Holiday in the real Philadelphia club Emerson's Bar & Grill four months before her death from Cirrhosis and heart failure in a New York hospital.  Christopher Oram's atmospheric set spills off the stage into the auditorium, with cabaret tables both onstage and in the first seven rows of the stalls - imagine our delight when an usher asked if we would like to move to one of these tables rather than sit in the back-row of the stalls - a difference in seat price of £60!

McDonald ambles onto the stage and it is fairly obvious that she is already 'feeling no pain' however she starts to sing... and that's when the magic happens.  Yes, Audra McDonald is doing a carefully-worked on impression rather than an interpretation of Holiday's unique phrasing but wow, what an impression!  She is truly remarkable especially when one is aware that her own natural range is a high soprano.  She has Holiday's trademark way of curling her voice around a lyric, honeyed yet spiked like a dangerously tampered-with cocktail.  But what McDonald captures too is the heaviness in Billie's voice by 1959... a voice worn out by life.

But this is a play-with-music rather than a musical, and while McDonald's singing is extraordinary enough she also delivers an acting performance of blistering intensity.  Holiday is not-so-quietly seething that the NY club ban has resulted in her having to play Philadelphia, although it was where she was born she hates it for the unrelenting pressure on her from the city's police.

The gig spirals out of control as Billie ignores the pleas of her pianist Jimmy and starts knocking back drink after drink.  She forgets lyrics, accuses the band of not understanding she can only sing songs she feels and after a few more songs, stumbles from the stage.  After an extended break she wanders back on cuddling her chihuahua (instant bedlam from the audience) and all seems to have calmed down until one notices her drooping left sleeve showing bleeding needle tracks.

Lanie Robertson's play certainly doesn't try to glamorize his subject - and McDonald certainly doesn't try to soft-peddle her for audience sympathy - but that eventually is the play's major fault.  I doubt if Holiday at even her most strung-out would have taken her audience on a whistle-stop tour of the tragedies in her life.

Yes of course not everyone is the audience will be aware of Holiday's wretched background, confrontations with racism and terrible men but eventually I felt like Thelma Ritter in ALL ABOUT EVE who says, when forced to hear the seemingly tragic life of Eve Harrington, "Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end"; the misery is piled on so thick it leaves no air to breath.

But under Lonny Price's sensitive direction McDonald triumphs as Billie the singer and Billie the woman, and the songs sound marvellous thanks to pianist Shelton Becton, drummer Frankie Tontoh and bassist Neville Malcolm.

There is a remarkable moment halfway through the show which illustrates McDonald's ability to change moods on a dime: her Billie takes great delight in telling of her immediate revenge on a racist uppity-white-bitch maitre d' who refuses to let her use a restaurant toilet and then launches straight into an intense version of "Strange Fruit" Holiday's self-penned classic indictment of Southern lynchings.  So while Robertson's play sometimes feels overladen with misery, Audra McDonald elevates it to an evening of power and wonder.