Kerry Meads (left) and Deborah Gilmour Smyth (both in foreground) in "Babette's Feast." Photo by Ken Jacques
The redemptive power of an exquisite, meticulously prepared meal has been demonstrated on many occasions in narrative storytelling, perhaps no more sublimely than in the 1958 short story by Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) "Babette's Feast." The French civil war refugee who has become housekeeper and cook to a pair of devout spinster sisters in 19th-century Norway is the magician behind the meal. The very dishes that she prepared when she was once head chef at Paris' Cafe Anglais before fleeing have the effect of resolving grievances and reconciling past and present.
How the story of "Babette's Feast" gets to this titular moment is the dramatic arc of Abigail Killeen's play based on the original short story and adapted by Rose Courtney. ("Babette's Feast" previously, and more famously, was adapted into a 1987 Danish movie starring Stephane Audran that would win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.)
Lamb's Players Theatre in Coronado is staging the West Coast premiere of Killeen's play, with the company's Robert Smyth directing. As Smyth explained to the audience prior to a recent performance, "Babette's Feast" is "story theater" in which the actors narrate the plot even as they inhabit one or multiple characters. This is not an unusual theatrical device, but it's not a favorite of mine as it tends to make a production highly expository in nature and, to me, sometimes static.
That aside, the Lamb's production is eloquent, soothing and quite beautifully mounted, with music compiled and directed (and some of it composed) by Deborah Gilmour Smyth (who also performs as the spinster sister Philippa) and performed onstage by cellist Diana Elledge. The music, in fact, is the piece de resistance of the play: the operatic duets, in particular, between Caitie Grady and Charles Evans Jr. are spellbinding.
"Babette's Feast" is told in two time periods: the past, when young Philippa (Grady) and sister Martine (Rachael VanWormer), daughters of a strictly devout dean (Jason Heil), are being courted by dashing suitors (Evans as an opera star and Ross Hellwig as a military man). For different reasons, the romances are not realized to fruition, and when we catch up with Philippa and Martine (in later years played by Gilmour Smyth and Kerry Meads) all they seem to have left is their piety and good works in the little village of Berlevag. When Babette (Yolanda Marie Franklin) turns up, having been sent to them by the aforementioned -- also older -- opera star, the journey to reconciliations and redemptions begins in earnest.
Almost everyone in the cast is obliged to adopt the utmost sincerity and seriousness on the way to Babette's grand repast. Almost, because Omri Schein, a familiar comic performer on several San Diego theater stages each year, breaks up the tension and breaks up the audience too with his dead stares and cross-dressing.
At an economical 90 minutes in length, Lamb's' "Babette's Feast" escapes over-ruminating without losing its messaging. The live music, the vocals of Grady and Evans, Jemima Dutra's period costumes and reminders that anything is possible on the other side, where paradise awaits, combine for a sumptuous, heartening evening or matinee on Coronado Island.
"Babette's Feast" runs through Feb. 16 at Lamb's Players Theatre in Coronado.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat