Artistic sacrifice, the consequences of sexual abuse, and literary celebrity all figure prominently in "The Rape of Djuna Barnes," a new play by Dee Jae Cox that the Ivy Theatre Company is presenting at the St. Genesius Theatre about the notorious lesbian novelist and luminary of the Paris Left Bank art scene. Probing beneath the autobiographical details of Barnes' tragic life, Cox and director Pamela Forrest offer a handsomely staged and often poignant profile, though it sometimes lapses into pat psychological formulas.
An ingeniously implemented split chronology alternates between Barnes the artist at the height of her power in the 1930s--portrayed with darkly erotic intensity by Lucki Wheating--and the sadder but calmer Greenwich Village recluse (sympathetically played by Patricia Place) shortly before her death in 1982. Unifying the two phases of Barnes' life is her tortured relationship with the creative inspiration that abandoned her throughout her last four decades of life.
The recovery of her Muse (personified as a tenderhearted pixie by Kristine Oller) during a drunken binge brings new insight to the older Barnes, first through a retrospective of her turbulent Paris days, then in a second-act alternate history exploring the "what-ifs" of her most pivotal life choice. Reliving her oft-regretted split with her most profound love, Thelma Wood (Rebecca Tilney), Barnes finally understands that she would never have produced her greatest book, "Nightwood," if she had reconciled. In something of an afterthought, a final revelation traces Barnes' issues to childhood sexual abuse.
Intriguing as these speculations may be in terms of Barnes' personal drama, they fall short of universal insights--many artists manage to produce without having to sacrifice relationships, and not all abuse victims go on to write great novels. Nevertheless, a powerful central performance by Wheating keeps the piece grounded in emotional authenticity.
The solid supporting cast includes Kathy Bell Denton, Pam Raines and Shoshana Henri as some of the exotic free spirits of that colorful era. In addition, an abundance of literary details enriches the cultural tapestry, including Barnes' satiric jabs at the unseen but omnipotent Gertrude Stein ("a man in a skirt"), and Barnes' contemptuous dismissal of her editor, a long-suffering T.S. Eliot (Darin Singleton). A PBS docudrama couldn't have done a better job.
* "The Rape of Djuna Barnes," St. Genesius Theatre, 1049 Havenhurst Drive, West Hollywood. Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends March 14. $15-$18. (323) 939-4967. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.