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THEATER REVIEW 'GERTRUDE STEIN AND A COMPANION' : Portrait of a Pair : The Ensemble Theater presents an affectionate, moving depiction of the expatriate poet and her longtime companion.

March 26, 1992|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Works of art that take artists as their subject can be risky propositions. All too often it seems they become self-referential to the point of self-reverence, leaving broader appeal by the wayside. This is a particularly common trap in stage biographies, which can easily succumb to precious idolatry if they're not handled carefully.

For the most part, the Ensemble Theatre Company production of "Gertrude Stein and a Companion" skillfully navigates these pitfalls and presents us with an affectionate, often-moving portrait of the writer Gertrude Stein and her companion of 40 years, Alice B. Toklas.

Stein was the poet and novelist who held court over the expatriate artists who gravitated to Paris in the early part of this century. Her influence in the art world exceeded the limited readership of her own work, and she is remembered most as a critic and an arbiter of literary status--it was Stein who pinned the "Lost Generation" label on F. Scott Fitzgerald and his contemporaries.

Toklas was the secretary and lover who faithfully published Stein's works and maintained her estate for 20 years after Stein's death in 1946.

In playwright Win Wells' quirky, subjective portrait, Stein's ghost returns to guide us through some of the key events in their association, with some well-researched glimpses into the intellectual currents swirling through that culturally explosive period.

It is very much to the credit of the performers--Sylvia Short as Stein and Gretchen Evans as Toklas--that these quasi-mythical literary figures reclaim their flesh-and-blood reality. There's an emotional charge here that elevates the two-character play above an academic exercise. Just as important, their relationship is treated with sensitivity and discretion, with the lesbian aspect taken as a given.

The emphasis is on enduring friendship and commitment--qualities hard to come by in any relationship. The loyalty in Evans' Toklas is convincing and touching--whether she's defiantly marching off to arrange a place for them in heaven with the Pope (even though she's Jewish), or sneaking out with one of the paintings from Stein's formidable collection to pay for the publishing of one of her friend's books.

And Short's stern-willed, fiercely independent Stein reveals her deep dependence on her deferential caretaker, especially in moments of self-doubt. Embarking on her lecture tour in America, she ruefully reflects, "I am I because my little dog knows me, but I've lost sight of myself."

What she (and we) do see clearly is the logic to their union. At a time when so few women received higher education in America, Stein studied under William James at Harvard Annex (later Radcliffe) and even took classes in medicine at Johns Hopkins. To someone like Stein, so rigorously disciplined in intellectual questioning, Toklas' unswerving devotion was a welcome harbor.

The play could (and should) have extended this connection to Stein's work. A mind that could so easily become lost in the abstract maze of analysis should find overwhelming relief in the self-evidence of "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose," but this tone is missing when Short delivers the line.

Still, even if the relationship between Stein's life and her work remains unexplored, director Robert G. Weiss has wisely kept the focus clear on the complex association between the two women. With its two fine actresses in top form, this one is as impressive as a stage biography can get.

To be a greater play, it needs to overcome its static portraiture with more dramatic momentum--to show us life as it was lived rather than life as it is looked back upon.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Gertrude Stein and a Companion." Performed through April 19, Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 8, Sundays at 7 p.m. on March 29 and April 5, and 2 p.m. on April 12 and 19; at the Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara. Tickets are $14 Fridays and Saturdays, $12 Thursdays, $10 Wednesdays and Sundays. For reservations or further information, call 962-8606.

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