“Being with me is an act of imagination . . .”
I know what you’re thinking because I thought it too: a play about Margaret Fuller, a second-tier member of an exanimate, obsolete, New England American, quasi-religious literary and philosophical movement, itself a mere sequel to the British Romantics—it sounds like a risky proposition for an evening’s entertainment. Art that strives to educate can leave an audience feeling virtuous, but theater has always drawn more for its popularity on Eros than Minerva. Fortunately, playwright Kathleen Cahill knows this, and in “Charm” has fashioned a Margaret Fuller who, ruminating on her childhood study of Latin, slyly refers to the impact of an advanced intellect on her personal appeal by calling it “a form of birth control.” For those who wonder if sex played any significant role in the nineteenth century, here is a heroine who devotes her life to trying to answer the question in the affirmative.
When Margaret Fuller died, the men who had surrounded, including Henry David Thoreau, Horace Greely, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, thought that her reputation would be short-lived, and so both her writings and her biography were edited to capitalize on her abrupt, sensational end. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, and her bowdlerized memory soon faded. To her misfortune, she was also one of those persons whose work, regardless of merit, could never measure up to the anticipation her charisma generated in those who had encountered her in person. The first step towards rehabilitating Margaret Fuller, then, is to recreate her presence: to produce the feeling of what it must have been like to bask in the radiance of her company. This is the task undertaken by Kathleen Cahill, the Salt Lake Acting Company, and “Charm.”
Cahill and her director, Meg Gibson, set the stage for Fuller’s epiphany by first stripping the space, leaving only a raked trapezoid of free-floating parquet floor bordered by wings that enable some of the plays funniest bits. A handful of props, skillful acting, and creative use of stage effects fill this space with a rapidly shifting palimpsest of scenes and events that must have been packed like sardines into Fuller’s actual lifetime. Eight actors, four playing multiple roles, do the vital work of reconfiguring whatever images we may retain of her contemporaries to reveal what history has smudged and plastered over: the space that existed among them that needed her to fill it. A running joke that turns out to be true shows a blocked Nathaniel Hawthorne (Brik Berkes) finally able to create the heroine of America’s first great novel—Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter”—only after he finally apprehends Fuller’s unconventional personality. Emerson (Nicholas Wuehermann) hires her to edit his transcendental journal, The Dial, but can’t bring himself to follow her example of turning ideals into actions. Robert Scott Smith’s Thoreau, exploring the boundary between privacy and loneliness, mirrors her discomfort as they ponder together whether society can truly accommodate individuals.
But it remains for the actress who portrays Margaret to fill the hole they create in one of America’s favorite stories about itself. If the audience is left wondering what these celebrated men found so compelling—if we have to take on faith that there must have been something about her, even though we’ll never feel it ourselves—we may come to appreciate her as a writer or a reputation, and we may admire the play’s efforts on our behalf, but precisely what those who knew and worked with Fuller experienced will elude us. So Cheryl Gaysunas triumphs as Margaret, whom she channels not just with the meticulous attention to detail that actresses are typically praised for, but by projecting the woman’s character with the verve and energy we might sooner expect from Ben Kingsley. Shrugging, smiling knowingly, and blossoming radiantly into the moment, her Margaret succeeds in seizing the attention and galvanizing the feelings not only of those she meets in the play, but of the audience as well.
Margaret Fuller suspected that she would have fared better in another time. “Charm” underscores this possibility with momentary anachronisms that slice through time to take her, for an instant, out of hers and into ours. More poignantly, as her temporal trainwreck plays itself out the audience comes to see that just as she was cursed to live in a time that could not appreciate her, so we are blighted to live in a world that no longer contains her. But for those who can stand to contemplate the poverty that is sexism, “Charm” will live up to its name as it allows SLAC and its fortunate guests to dwell, for a couple of hours, in a cerebral space where it just ain’t so.
For more information and tickets visit http://www.saltlakeactingcompany.org
By Kathleen Cahill
April 14 – May 9
Directed by Meg Gibson
Salt Lake Acting Compnay
photo: Brik Berkes
and Cheryl Gaysunas in Charm. Photo by Thom Gourley of Flatbread Images.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.