The Head in the Oven

Paul Alexander's play about Sylvia Plath blames the poet's death mostly on her husband

American poet Sylvia Plath has long been a hallowed, haunted figure in American literary culture. Dead at 30 in 1963, a presumed suicide, Plath had a short career, but her intense, dense poetry and harrowing private life have made her the ultimate poster girl for feminist rage against male oppression and an icon of the tragic poetic sensibility. Like Shelley, Keats, Byron, and many other poetic lights, Plath's life was a brief supernova of literary output, flaming out before she reached full fame. In Paul Alexander's new, one-woman play, Edge, now at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, this literary legend leaps to life in a startling, riveting performance by Angelica Torn that blazes as fiercely as Plath's poetry.

While Plath evokes controversy and emotion to this day, her life story is not particularly eventful. Born of strict, emotionally distant parents in Massachusetts, Plath absorbed her professor father's perfectionist standards and was deeply troubled by his death when she was only 8 years old. A straight-A student, she was thrilled to be accepted to Smith College, and she began to perfect her lifelong interest in writing poetry. But when a magazine internship failed to bring her the professional attention she craved, she attempted suicide, one of several such episodes. Gaining a Fulbright scholarship to attend grad school at Cambridge, she met and married the brooding, dashing Yorkshire poet Ted Hughes -- a relationship that brought her sorrow, pain, and endless grist for her bitter, anguished poetry.

Alexander's script is faithful to Plath's life story and serves as a vehicle to indict Hughes, who died in 1998, as a sadistic, insecure, mediocre, demonic figure. Plath's tale ranges from accounts of physical and psychological abuse by Hughes to her sorrow at her father's lack of affection, from nightmarish episodes of electroshock therapy to Plath's attempt to express her feelings about her father at his gravesite. All of this plays like a horror story, a claustrophobic fight-and-flight tale into the endless darkness of a tortured personality. Alexander, who directs his script as well as lights the production, provides effective staging, using isolated spots of light and dreamlike shadow patterns to create a spooky, dreamlike sensibility.

Angelica Torn: Dark story, electric performance
Tony Torn
Angelica Torn: Dark story, electric performance

Details

Presented through March 27, www.cgplayhouse.org, 305 442-4000.
Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy., Coconut Grove.

Torn as Plath is a marvel -- so intense and believable that she's more than a little intimidating, even at first glance. She's on stage before the play begins, sitting slumped at a desk, working on yet another poem she scrawls into a college composition book. Her tawny blond hair is in disarray, pulled back with a rubber band, with other rubber bands on her wrist, as a casual bracelet. Her shoes are scuffed, her black sweater rumpled, her plain green dress in need of repair. When she addresses the audience, she does so with a clipped, mannered articulation and an underslung, upper-class drawl that Plath probably picked up while at Smith, where she was a middle-class "pretender in a land of wealth and privilege." In a flat monotone and with a wry, ironic wit, Plath announces that this is the last day of her life and proceeds to recount that life in unnerving detail. Torn's embodiment of Plath is thoroughly convincing, a performance with specific revelatory touches. She hurtles through a narrative but gets distracted by an errant thread dangling at the hem of her dress or sidetracked by picking at a scab on her arm. While recounting some vivid memory, she suddenly stops talking and lapses into silence, receding to confront some private memory she never explains. Torn's also good at depicting the other characters, and several sequences are vivid -- particularly her hallucinogenic death scene as she turns the gas stove on in her freezing London flat, imagining Hughes forcing her head into the oven.

But there's a story within this story, and that duality is what makes Torn's performance so absorbing. Plath's sad life is interesting, but what's more intriguing is the disparity between Plath's sardonic, brittle mask and the white-hot emotions seething beneath the cool surface. Much is delivered with studied wit, but when cracks appear, Torn erupts with sudden, incinerating anguish, then quickly recovers -- with pain, shame, and force of will -- her intended persona once more. This is samurai acting -- precise, focused.

While Torn is electric, the text is less so. Its two-act structure does not manage to maintain its initial intensity after the intermission, and there's a lot of repetitive overkill (Plath terms Hughes "a vampire" three times). More centrally, this tale of rage and obsession feels rather flat dramatically, offering no sense of self-awareness or transcendence. While Plath readily identifies the similarities of her two principal torturers -- her father and her husband -- she remains particularly unaware of herself, a party to her own torture, even to the end. When Hughes ran off with another woman, he demanded a divorce, which Plath refused to give, thereby ensuring that he inherit the royalties from her works after she died, an ironic treasure-trove he continued to exploit right up to his death. Plath's story is one of unrelenting cruelty and sadomasochism but one in which the victim is complicit. The result is that this Edge is more about theatrics than dramatics, offering a fascinating performance vehicle but not much of a point.

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