The image of Shakespeare’s Juliet, awakening from her sleeping draught to gaze upon her dead lover, is unforgettable. In this vein Hungarian playwright Andràs Visky has imagined his mother Julia awakening in the morgue of a communist-era Romanian gulag, the victim of a largely forgotten atrocity. In this one-woman show starring Patricia Skarbinski and ably directed by Robin Witt, Visky fabricates his mother’s conversations with her two beloveds: God and her imprisoned husband, who is a man of God.
Julia’s husband is a minister of the Reformed Church; it is his unwavering faith that lands him in prison and his family in the gulag surrounded by the Romanian wilderness. To love her husband is to love God, but as Julia watches her seven children starve, she questions the existence and benevolence of God.
Skarbinski’s performance is generally excellent, although there were a few scattered stumbles. She carries the show beautifully and lends realism to Visky’s lyrical descriptions with her warm, low voice. Skarbinski occasionally takes on the personas of a handful of other characters; her children, the Romanian officials, and the other prisoners, yet she remains Julia throughout. Skarbinski’s movements mostly blend well with the rest of the show, although during a section on the family’s food (or lack thereof) her splashings in a bucket were so overstated as to be distracting. However, her characterisation of another female prisoner driven mad from hunger is both chillingly demented and harrowingly pitiful.
Juliet makes inventive use of a limited but functional set by Jessica Keuhnau, and minimal props. Julia’s wooden bier in the morgue becomes a thatched hut, and her funeral shroud both a shawl and a body. Julia holds a dagger, which remains onstage throughout: a constantly threatening presence. Joel Huff’s sound design brilliantly conveys Julia’s memories of crowded streets in Budapest, her endless self-reflexive questions, her god, and her husband. Skarbinski’s voiceovers of relevant Bible verses, however, were often recited in a sing-song tone that became more grating than poignant.
Julia’s Poisonwood Bible-like tale of love, for a man and God, and doubt in the true goodness of both is ultimately an affirmation of it. One can’t love or believe without doubt. Juliet’s tragedy, the dagger in her breast, is a universal trope within fiction. Juliet: A Dialogue about Love is a moving portrait of a real but forgotten Juliet, dying for love and faith. This simplebut powerful production is worth seeing.