Winter's (Moral) Tales

Wallace Shawn asks unpleasant questions; Kathleen Chalfant lives the heartfelt answer

"A sad tale's best for winter," says the little prince who dies young in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, and Off-Broadway's taken him at his word, offering theatergoers a two-course holiday banquet of somber moral doubts. The two courses balance each other: The Last Letter is the gravely lucid answer to the provoking, haltingly phrased question posed by Aunt Dan and Lemon. And the question both authors face is about Jews, appropriate for a time of year when we celebrate the birth of a Jewish philosopher, crucified for political reasons, who was also famous for asking irritating moral questions.

Aunt Dan and Lemon's sad tale comes in layers that are peeled away, like Peer Gynt's onion, to reveal a moral void. The outer layer is narrated by Leonora, nicknamed Lemon, an orphaned invalid who talks cheerfully about her upcoming death, and about how it's natural for the world to be controlled by the strong at the expense of the weak, which proves—to her satisfaction, at least—that the Nazis weren't necessarily wrong in attempting to exterminate the Jews; they were just doing what every power does. If they'd won, she tells us, history would have been written the other way round. As a sort of proof, she instances the story of her late mother's best friend, Danielle, called "Aunt Dan," an American Oxonian with bisexual cravings, a fund of sordid anecdotes, and a passionate admiration for Henry Kissinger. (Lemon's recollections are of Dan during the Vietnam War.) The climax is an anecdote, which we see acted out in graphic detail, about a happily promiscuous girl named Mindy, who seduced and strangled to death a police agent investigating her good friend Freddy's sordid activities. Mindy's confessing this to her, Dan tells Lemon, brought the two women into a brief but passionate affair.

Despite the seemingly clinical tone of Dan's tales, nothing in Aunt Dan's inner play is quite so certain as Lemon assumes. A set of narrations within a narration, the play has no dramatic action to confirm what it ostensibly asserts. We know only what Lemon tells us, and see only what she says she saw or Dan described to her. The bedridden Lemon lives in isolation; Dan is an American in England, espousing conservative views at a time of strong leftist and anti-American feeling. Either or both may be indulging in extreme wish-fulfillment fantasies; Dan may even be taking her revenge on Lemon's parents, whom we see becoming increasingly disaffected with her, by filling the child's head with hideous stories. Nor do her stories, particularly, bear out Lemon's conclusions: Mindy, in the anecdote, is cleverer than her victim, not stronger. And to say the Nazis were justified because some slut may once have murdered an undercover cop and gotten away with it is no logic at all.

Kathleen Chalfant in The Last Letter
photo: Gerry Goldstein
Kathleen Chalfant in The Last Letter

As often with Shawn, the script is a sympathy-trap, built as a series of interlocking ploys, to see if the audience can be lured into agreement with something particularly outrageous. Deep down, the play's conclusions aren't even especially startling: History is always written by the victors; Americans did do to the Indians what the Nazis did to the Jews, sometimes with equally monstrous brutality. But that doesn't settle any of the moral questions involved, either historically or in our own behavior. Those are left for us to resolve. Lemon, an audience like ourselves, never needs to face the problem; her ailments prevent her from engaging with the world. The invitation to identify with her turns out to be Shawn's last and slyest trick.

Where his trickery stumbles is in the dramaturgy. Max Stafford-Clark's original production—crisply, dispassionately deadpan—made the script's maddening succession of bits within bits unnerving; you never knew whose version of the world you were viewing. Linda Hunt's delicate Aunt Dan made an oracularly noncommittal emcee. Scott Elliott's close-up revival achieves a gluey, dreamlike atmosphere but makes the dream seem brash and brightly lit. Kristen Johnston's Aunt Dan is brash too, an enthusiast whose bold giddiness might rouse affection but never moral trust. You'd have to be an infant to take her seriously, and indeed Lili Taylor makes Lemon an adorably wicked child, where the original, Kathryn Pogson, let the child peep scarily through the earnest adult. The result makes the play feel cheaply sensationalistic, as if Shawn were just trying to jerk our chains, not testing us with serious and troubling questions.

The Last Letter, using only one performer and zero scenery, grounds the troubling questions in a far harsher context. The Russian novelist Vasily Grossman's empathic reconstruction of his doctor-mother's last days, in a Ukrainian village under Nazi occupation, it's a parade of daily confrontations with the difficult moral choices tossed around at second or third hand in Aunt Dan, with life or death the outcome. Ironically, compassion, so dismissively puzzled over in Lemon's concluding speech, is barely relevant to Grossman's exactingly specific chronicle (the truth of which is confirmed by such wartime documents as Victor Klemperer's extraordinary diary): Not only does sympathy not guarantee help, sometimes it actively gets in the way. Humanness, sensing the need to help others survive as a function of one's own survival, seems more to the point. Under Frederick Wiseman's subtle guidance, abetted by Donald Holder's stark, sweeping shifts of light, Kathleen Chalfant articulates the heartbreaking document with a devastating, anchored clarity, never pushing for effect, letting the anguish rise in us till it fills the theater to bursting; Shawn's doubts seem tiny by comparison.

 
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