It gets cold out there at night in England's Lake District and colder still in Grasmere,Kristina Leach's new play dramatizing a crucial year in the life of renowned Romantic poet William Wordsworth. From one winter to the next, Wordsworth, his doting sister Dorothy, old buddy Samuel Coleridge and old flame Mary Hutchinson struggle to preserve the fragile fairy-tale existence they've set up for one another even as everything is obviously and irrevocably changing. As the seasons turn, so do their lives and loves, and thus does the tiny little cottage of Grasmere grow chillier.
Certainly English majors will eat this play up. Leach is very smart about her subjects, offering enough historical aside to elicit knowing chuckles from all you Penguin-pocket-edition types (What should Coleridge call his newest and most creatively draining albatross of a masterwork? he wonders. "The Wedding Guest"? "The Ship"? "The Rime of the Something-Something"?), but Grasmere's real power draws on the pathos and even pain that throb beneath this poetry. They suffer for their art, these geniuses, and sometimes they suffer simply because of who they are, characterizations enabled by very strong performances. Aaron Lamb's Coleridge captures the poet's shattered self-confidence, and Annie DiMartino nails Dorothy's consuming frustration with her own writing career ("You have the luxury of your gender," she bitterly informs her bemused male parlormates). Those characters' inadequacies stand in stark contrast to Wordsworth's (played by a taut Logan Sledge) own easy talent, which is cast in uncomfortable and even ugly relief. "You have everything," Coleridge wearily says to his old friend, "and you don't even know it."
Leach, a Cal State Fullerton grad who helps run the Long Beach-based theater company 6 Chairs and a Couple of Artists, shows herself to be a playwright of calculated subtlety in her return to her alma mater. She's obviously a playwright who is fond of these characters and their romantic milieu. She's able to pull off the rather grandiloquent dialogue—Romantic affectations and all—while still helping us to care very deeply for their concerns. She's able to intricately and fascinatingly render the always-changing dynamic between each of these four volatile characters, as well as weave layers of metaphor and symbol —as befits a play about these most vivid of poets—into a seamless whole. Grasmere's narrative structure is similarly complex, striding boldly into a sort of stylized impressionism with numerous dream sequences and lightning flashbacks. Admittedly, it's a bit challenging, but Leach and director Dr. Joseph Arnold achieve an almost cinematic sophistication on stage. The juxtaposition of Romantic dialogue and characters with a modern theatrical staging turns Grasmereinto something far more than a costume drama about well-spoken characters. It's a deliciously dense, ambitious and thoughtful production, portraying mythic lives on a touchingly human scale. For all their expertise as Romantic poets, these characters are just as helpless before the demands of the heart and of human nature as any of us.
Grasmere at Cal State Fullerton's Arena Theatre, Nutwood Avenue and State College Boulevard, Fullerton, (714) 278-3371. Thurs., March 15 & Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. $10.