Ever caught yourself undermining the one you’re closest to, just to feel better about yourself? You’ll recognize that ugly impulse in The Countess, a tasty bit of art history-cum-domestic drama being given a fine, sensitive staging at the Washington Stage Guild. And it’s running Thursdays to Sundays, so it shouldn’t conflict with your weekly therapist appointment.
Gregory Murphy’s off-Broadway hit digs into the psychological backstory behind a 19th-century scandal that set London’s art-loving public a-whispering: In 1853, the influential Victorian critic John Ruskin lost his famously beautiful (and rather younger) wife to the painter John Everett Millais, once Ruskin’s protégé and disciple. Women were still closing their eyes and thinking of England in those days, remember, so you can imagine who took the heat: Effie Ruskin, once nicknamed “The Countess” for her glamour and her dazzle, found herself ostracized from society and blamed for the whole shocking business, portrayed as an unruly and possibly unstable creature, scornful of her duty to her husband and his social-pillar parents.
Murphy, a more sympathetic auditor, pins the bulk of the blame on Ruskin—a critic who claimed that art should look to nature for inspiration, but who (in this version of the tale, which the Millais heirs reportedly validate) apparently couldn’t bear the notion of a less-than-idealized wife. As the initial bonhomie of a painting holiday in the Scottish Highlands curdles into a tense and stifling closeness, Murphy brushes in the telling details of an unbecoming portrait: His Ruskin is a genius of a critic and a saboteur of a husband, a champion of his favorites in the lecture hall and a devastatingly destructive critic to his wife at home. What begins with an impatient aside or a quelling glance culminates in a brutally blunt assessment: “You’re not what I think a woman should be…I don’t like the way you look, sound, or move.’’ With this guy for a lord and master, is it any wonder Effie should find herself looking longingly at the young painter who keeps sketching her so lovingly?
Murphy’s efficient drama plays like a Merchant Ivory movie with a happier-than-usual ending, its stifling Victorian attitudes undermined by a heroine who sees a way out of the marital trap and isn’t afraid to take it. The writing’s tight and lively, the scenes chock-full of freighted moments and finely tuned little frissons, and Bill Largess stages each sequence with a near-perfect instinct for undercurrent and nuance. An overmodulated explosion or two only confirm that this production speaks most eloquently when it whispers: Its silences rumble like thunder, and the merest touch, for a desperately unhappy woman who’s accustomed to being shrunk from, can spark a conflagration.
Stage Guild regulars Steven Carpenter and Jason Stiles anchor the bottom corners of the love triangle as Ruskin and Millais, and both men do handsome work. Stiles handles the charged hushes admirably—there’s a bit involving a haircut, of all things, that stills the room and electrifies the air—and Carpenter’s performance is a particularly gratifying departure. The actor can be an awfully engaging presence as a sympathetic character, and he stammers nicely when he plays the comic bumbler, but his Ruskin is a masterpiece of metastasized self-loathing, clenched and bitter—agonized, too, and ultimately pitiable—under that carefully cultivated shell of clipped superiority.
Ilona Dulaski and Vincent Clark add starch and comedy (and a little horror, too) as Ruskin’s parents, an antediluvian pair whose crippling expectations would seem to have something to do with both their son’s achievements and his internalized anxieties. Ben Shovlin and Louise Andrews round out the cast nicely, playing a decent servant and an obstreperous lady writer who both take Effie’s part.
But the discovery of The Countess is its Countess, a newcomer (to town, anyway) called Sunshine Cappelletti. You’d remember her even if her name weren’t so charmingly unlikely—for her quietly mobile features, for the grace of her body language, for the knack she has, in this play’s most pressurized and intimate moments, of trusting an infinitesimal change of expression to do what broader histrionics never could. It’s a rather nice debut.
And it’s a rather nice show, one whose attitudes and upholsteries make an attractive showcase for the Stage Guild’s strengths. Arch banter is as nothing to the stalwarts of this ensemble; the outraged flourish of a skirt and the cutting sidelong look across the parlor must by now be an unconscious reflex. (Heaven help the holiday partygoer who gets on the bad side of a Stage Guilder.) There are few infelicities—Andrews, for instance, is a little young for the mentor-ish role of Lady Eastlake, who was 19 years Effie’s senior—and they’re far from serious. Whether you like it for the literate laughs or the poised cruelties, The Countess is one devilishly attractive lady.