Return to 27 Rue de Fleurus
by Richard Dodds
There was a there there after all. It just didn't happen to be in Oakland. The there that was there was at 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris, where Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas held court with many of the best and brightest of the Lost Generation. Theatre Rhino's recently staged Gertrude Stein and a Companion is a play that offers something of a genial, slim primer to those heady days and the two women whose unique relationship helped propel them.
Stein coined the term "Lost Generation" to describe the confusion and aimlessness in many who had come of age during the Great War, and it was a phrase made famous by Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast, in which he used it as a dig at Stein's egotism. Stein and Toklas' own feelings about Hemingway are a recurring topic in Win Wells' play, even providing it with its title. Hemingway didn't deign to refer to Toklas by name, reducing her existence in Stein's life to "companion."
Playwright Win Wells crafted his play from the letters and writings of Stein and Toklas, augmented with imagined dialogue between the two and occasional bursts inspired by Stein's "rose is a rose is a rose" style wordplay. "That is the way I am, and I did and I do," says Stein in reference to her own genius. "When you are a genius, you are privileged and therefore nobody can do anything but take care of you."
In Wells' account, Toklas achieves stature by taking care of Stein, most importantly by seeing to it that Stein's singular literary style finds an audience and earns her a level of the celebrity she thinks her deserves. The play chronicles this relationship with mundane details of their life together with occasional namedropping that can evoke bits of bitchery.
The play opens in 1946, on the day of Stein's death, and as a mourning Toklas talks to herself, the spirit of her beloved materializes as the play then shuttles through the decades from Stein's life in Paris before she met Toklas, through their years together, and then into the long life Toklas would lead into the 1960s.
What the play does not do is delve into how Stein and Toklas confronted the dynamics of a same-sex relationship in that era, either for themselves or in how others may have reacted to it. It's basically a non-topic, something deeper than the playwright was interested in exploring even as it would deepen the skimming play.
The Rhino production at the Eureka Theatre brought an agreeable, modest life to what is a play of modest proportions. Kathryn Wood and Elaine Jennings were good company as Stein and Toklas, respectively, with Jennings finding more variable notes to play in her performance as Toklas. Wood co-directed the production with John Fisher, and they chose to bring in a third performer, perhaps to add variety to a script that doesn't provide much opportunity for creative staging.
When the play debuted in New York, the actors playing Stein and Toklas delivered bits of dialogue in the voices of family, friends, rivals, and reporters, and if Haley Bertelsen didn't add much by taking on these lines instead, it's reasonable enough. The biggest problem with her presence was not her fault, but a directorial choice to have her sitting to one side of the stage lounging in a contemporary chair, idly flipping through pages of a magazine until it was time for her to enter the action.
There was a suggestion of an explanation in a program note stating that portions of the play take place in present-day San Francisco, though the vaguely engaged third character was more of a strange distraction than any sort of contemporary link – if that was what that was.