Passion becomes obsession very quickly in the latest at ion theatre, and when it does, it’s scary. Not “Fatal Attraction” scary, but the kind of discomfiture that preys upon you in the darkness. The show is Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Passion, which opened on Broadway almost exactly 20 years ago and is only now making its San Diego debut. Even though Passion won the Tony for Best Musical, it’s understandable why it ran less than a year on Broadway. Though the story, set in Italy during a time of war in the late 19th century, is to some degree a standard-issue love-triangle melodrama, it is chockfull of unsettling desperation. Whatever romance is conveyed in the very opening moments – a tryst between soldier Giorgio (Jason Heil) and his married mistress (Katie Whalley) – is forgotten almost from the instant that sickly Fosca (Sandy Campbell) makes her needy presence felt. That’s when the obsession begins, and as the tale unfolds, her obsession becomes Giorgio’s as well.
Ion Theatre has proven itself with dark musicals before – last year’s production of Grey Gardens was one of the year’s best. Sondheim’s operatic score is earnestly rendered by Passion’s large cast, under the direction of Kim Strassburger. (Piano accompaniment is provided by Mark Danisovszky.) Making her ion debut, Campbell has the meatiest role, and Fosca seems a strangely haunting bookend to another part Campbell played earlier this year, Lady Macbeth at Intrepid Shakespeare. Fosca’s is a different shade of madness, though Lapine’s narrative questions whether her condition is really starvation for love. Giorgio’s transfer of passion from his mistress Clara to Fosca is troubling but inevitable, and Heil is as steady in the role as his wide-eyed character is unsteady. Memorable among the ensemble is Ruff Yeager as Giorgio’s colonel, and Bryan Banville in dual roles as a soldier and the unscrupulous Ludovic, Fosca’s husband in a flashback.
The production is a wearying hour and 45 minutes without intermission, and the love, or obsession, triangle does unfold more slowly than it should. But take note of the Giorgio we see when the play opens and the one on stage at the end. The price of passion will be all too clear.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat