The plays of Marguerite Duras, like her novels, are very demanding. They tend not to be linear, to be minimalist in their details, and to remain elusive and mysterious in mood. The New York premiere of her "Savannah Bay," written in 1983, presented by Classic Stage Company, proves to be equally challenging.
Performed on an almost empty stage except for a table and two chairs, the play concerns the meeting of a once-famous elderly actress and the granddaughter she never really knew. In a series of encounters that may or may not take place on the same day, Madeleine, the actress, is forced to confront her past and her memories.
What eventually seems clear is that Madeleine's daughter committed suicide while her mother was making a film in Savannah Bay, Siam. The granddaughter, whom no one had time for, eventually took the name "Savannah." Both are haunted by the death of the same woman, daughter and mother.
This is all revealed in conversations that alternate between seeming lucid and dreamlike, at one time validated, another time contradicted. Performed in the Barbara Bray translation, the play does not seem particularly French, but then it might not in the original either. Director Les Waters makes the text as mobile as it can be considering it may be one continuous conversation or a series of discussions over time. At 65 minutes, it's not a moment too short.
"Savannah Bay" is as challenging for the actors as it is for the audience. The brilliant Kathleen Chalfant, usually lucidity to the core, seems a bit adrift here. She is asked to seesaw from lucid to confused, senile to masterful, haunted to pragmatic. Marin Ireland makes a slighter impression as the granddaughter in an extremely underwritten role, that of the questioner.