Photo by Ken Howard/SCRGregory Murphy's The Countess is a costumed, mannered re-creation of a not-so-well-known Victorian scandal. It's also—unexpectedly—a sharply observed case study of domestic and sexual abuse.
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First-time playwright Murphy recounts the love triangle between famed critic John Ruskin (Jeff Sugarman); his wife, Effie (Blake Lindsley); and Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais (Mitchell Anderson). Ruskin's abuse of Effie is not physical but mental. He observes and critiques his wife's every move and records these transgressions in a diary he keeps with him at all times. She's all too human, and Ruskin can't love real women; he's looking for the idealized goddesses he finds in Romantic paintings. Effie's hidden feelings of inadequacy fuel her smoldering desperation for escape and her gradual disclosure of herself to the painter, who makes himself open and available to her.
Sugarman is exceptional as Ruskin, breathing crazed despair into the role of the husband who falls from upright pillar of society into madness. Director Juliette Carrillo deserves credit for preventing the production from passing out of the realm of subtle cultural criticism into mere melodrama.
Why, you might ask, should we give a rat's ass about a period piece? When they're bad, period pieces come off like pastiches of ornate costumes and contrived speech patterns. When they're good—as The Countess is—they resonate with a modern audience. The constraining corsets and waistcoats become more than wardrobe; they become metaphors, offering a glimpse of something universal and enduring: the love of freedom.
THE COUNTESS at South Coast Repertory's Second Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5561. Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m. Through Dec. 3. $26-$47.