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Franklin (front) and O’Sullivan in Dimeto (right).

Weight of the World
By Ralph Hammann

By Athol Fugard, directed by Peter Wallace

The Unicorn Theatre at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through June 29

In the darkness immediately preceding the action, we hear sound effects that suggest some primal percolation. A sensitively rendered erotic image that could be from a Greek myth follows: that of a nearly nude young woman, Lydia, astride a dark horse to which she is fastening intricately knotted ropes running through a block-and-tackle system. That something sensual is brewing is held in check, however, by the coolly scientific directions spoken to Lydia by an offstage voice in the darkness. It is that of her uncle, Dimetos, an engineer and former designer of cities.

The work at hand is the extrication of a horse that has fallen into a well. For a while it seems that the eroticism is in the mind of the observer and that the play is primarily concerned with matters social and scientific. A tale of forbidden love dangerously underlies the innocence and absence of sexual feelings that follows. But in the Berkshire Theatre Festivalís production of Athol Fugardís Dimetos, there is much more than mere physics riding on the pulleys that connect girl and man and horse, and thus is the stage set for a modern Greek tragedy that suggests a gender reversal of Phaedra.

Dimetos has fled the city that he helped create for a nontechnological life in a province where he uses the simplest of tools to manipulate the laws of the Earth, to which he now has a closer connection. Looking somewhat like Ernest Hemingway, Sterling Hayden, or an ancient Promethean, Eric Hill is a formidable Dimetos and immediately engenders a sense of trust, stability and peace.

With the arrival of Danilo (Jeremy Davidson in a performance that doesnít yet seem at ease), an emissary from the foundering city, matters begin to change. A Dionysian character, Danilo beseeches Dimetos to return to the city and save it with his near godlike powers of engineering. A catalyst to Dimetosí self-examination of his responsibilities as a creator, Danilo also stimulates sexual elements, and the story diverges into two thematic threads. One theme seems drawn from Ayn Rand, with Dimetos standing in as an Atlas who shrugs off the society of weak men to forge ties as an individual with similarly strong individuals. This is potent material that is, unfortunately, not adequately developed later in the play.

The second theme is that of a secret passion that wrecks havoc on the delicate balance of relationships in Dimetosí simple household, which also includes an older housekeeper, Sophia (Anne Sullivan in a credible performance), who has a hidden love of her own.

Eventually the play begins to resemble the central relationships of Shakespeareís The Tempest with Dimetos as Prospero and Lydia as Miranda. The results donít make for comedy here, however, not even dark comedy. Relinquishing his powers to lead a city has only placed Dimetos in a more immediate, elemental relationship with his powers, a relationship that releases an agent of the id more powerful than The Tempestís Caliban. Attending this is a terrible guilt with no redemption save that conjured in Dimetosí descent into madness. Itís strong material.

It is only upon reading Fugardís regrettably out-of-print play that one appreciates the greatness of the contributions brought to the BTF production by, especially, director Peter Wallace, Hill and Tara Franklin. The text is dense, often requiring more than one reading. Wallaceís direction and the actorsí interpretations do much to clarify, heighten and find an emotional core in Fugardís heady blend of ideas.

In all of her performances on the BTFís various stages, Franklin has been an eloquent and elegant force of natural talent combined with invisible craft. In her first lead role, she fulfills the ample promise of her previous successes. Radiating an earthy sensuality, a spontaneous innocence and an awe, wonderful and then terrible, of things both man and manmade, Franklin delivers a performance that powerfully resonates even through her absence in the second act.

As Dimetos, Eric Hill charts a devastating course that moves from its own gentle innocence and denial to an awful collapse. Hillís is a majestic portrayal that makes Dimetos the equal in depth and suffering to any tragic hero. It ends in a moment of self-confrontation that leaves the great man involuntarily quivering, then shaking, as he descends into a madness that, given Hillís performance, may be enlightenment. If you, like I, have held Hill in high esteem, you will not miss this. If you havenít yet become acquainted, go and discover.

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