By John Lyle Belden
“Beauty is power,” we are told. But what if one is not beautiful; how does she get what she desires?
This question is at the heart of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, “Passion,” playing through March 26 at Theatre on the Square.
In a past era, Italian army officer Giorgio (Scott Russell) has found love with Clara (Jessica Hawkins), who is inconveniently married. He is assigned to a new post, where, while meeting the other officers, he learns that a woman, Fosca (Lori Ecker), lives in the quarters of the commanding Colonel (Norman Brandenstein), her cousin.
Fosca suffers from unspecified mental and physical ailments, leaving her weak and enhancing her unattractiveness. Giorgio takes pity on her, and being the only man to show her true kindness, she falls in love with him. His heart is with Clara, but Fosca’s persistence starts to affect him.
Is Fosca manipulative and cruel, or misunderstood and seeking affection the only way she knows how? Do Giorgio’s acts and reactions show weakness, or tested inner strength? The answers audiences must decide for themselves, and Ecker and Russell don’t make it easy with their nuanced performances.
Fosca is more plain than ugly, in a long, black, shapeless dress with minimal makeup and hair severely pulled back; but in her era as in ours, to look so ordinary is enough, coupled with her odd demeanor and an attitude that hints at a lack of inner beauty as well. Still, Ecker can’t help but shine and makes us feel for her, even when other characters can’t or won’t.
Clara, on the other hand, has bright dresses, colorful makeup and an angelic demeanor (she even knows Giorgio is friends with Fosca) that lets you forget she’s an adulteress; and Hawkins gives her a clear, charming voice and easy smile.
Russell plays Giorgio as the eager, loyal hound who rests easy at Clara’s feet and is devoted to the troops he serves with and over. Such qualities are easily misunderstood and abused by Fosca, who drives him to physical illness that seems to mirror her own.
This musical is not known for its catchy showtunes, but for possibly being Sondheim’s most complex romantic story, a show he counted among his favorites in interviews for “Sondheim on Sondheim.” To judge for yourself, see “Passion” at TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave. in downtown Indy. Call 317-685-8687 or see www.tots.org.
(Review also posted on The Word.)