The Imaginary Invalid
Translated and directed by Barbara Leavell Smith
“It’s up to them to get better, if they can.”
The 17th century French actor and playwright, Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) was somewhat obsessed with doctors, health and imaginary maladies. That he died after his fourth performance, playing Argan, the hypochondriac, in his final play, “The Imaginary Invalid” in 1673, seems like a triumph of sorts. This comedy, the seventh in his medical series that began in 1645 with “The Flying Doctor,” perhaps defines the man and his muse better than the others. He paints a picture here of a man of great strength and substance who considers himself to be mortally ill and as someone who must be under constant medical care. Argan, in fact, is very much in control of his own situation and most of his maladies are self-inflicted. Are you laughing yet?
On stage at the Ghent Playhouse a group of non-professionals are taking on this most difficult of all French comedies (not a farce, by the way), one that is a challenge for the finest professionals to pull off. What is required to pull this off perfectly is sharpness, style, lightning reactions and an overwhelming sense of what is imminent. An acting company needs to be able to respond to anything and everything that happens on its stage to make this all play well and at the Ghent Playhouse, on opening night, much of those required elements were missing. To my amazement the play still functioned nicely, if not brilliantly, and the company managed to run with the play and take it all the way home.
Some of this is due to the translation by Barbara Leavell Smith which preserves the formalism of the French original but uses vernacular English to bring accessibility to the formal style of the language. We are always aware that this is another time, but the words, phrasing of them, and the fine use of punctuation to make long sentences understandable, brings a modern life-force to the text of the play. Some of it is due to Smith’s staging of her work. She has a company of players, some of them very young, who have no fears about contact, about looming over one another, about the reality of a touch and a nudge and a shove. With that to work for the characters, they take on a reality that plays well here.
Many of the actors need a lot of applause for what they deliver in this difficult play. George Filieau as Argan, the imaginary invalid of the title, is excellent at showing the physical strengths and weaknesses of his man. In the same act of moving he presents the man and the man’s own image of himself simultaneously. He does it with facial expressions and body language and the booming sounds of his voice. He is really marvelous in this play. Not for a single moment do we believe in his liver illness or any other proposed problems, and yet we believe he believes it is real. Filieau manages to pull off the near-impossible task of making Argan not only real, but really relevant to all of us watching him. We understand him; we know him.
As his brother, Beralde, Mark “Monk” Schane-Lydon turns in an equally stellar performance. His understanding of his brother’s ridiculous behavior is a literal 180 degree opposition and like stars in the sky, the linkage is unbreakable. When Beralde takes on the issues behind Argan’s hypchondria the response is instant and the interplay is wonderful. This duet dominates the third act (second act in this production) and it makes you wish Moliere had brought them together earlier. I don’t think Schane-Lydon has been much better than he is in this role.
Like so many plays of this period, and the Mozart operas that reflected this style of writing, the servant becomes a central character, often more important in thought and action than her masters. As Argan’s maid-servant Toinette, Bridget Bulson turns in a slightly forced, mostly funny, strong and in control performance that often does move the attention off of Argan and on to her character. This is a young actress with a future if she decides to follow that path. I look forward to finding her again and again.
Lael Locke plays Argan’s second wife. In this play she delivers a solid character whose underlying motives are talked about but never witnessed as she plays her husband for the cuckold he could become under the right circumstances. This is one of Molière’s shadiest female characters and Locke manages to make her charms real while still keeping us guessing about her real intent.
As Argan’s daughter, whose upcoming marriage forms a major point of the plot, Julia Fingar is a sweet if slightly aloof Angelique. A high school senior she is just the right age for the role, but her lack of experience shows somewhat. Even so, she had many lovely moments and shows potential. Her intended husband, an idiot of a doctor, was played by Kevin Kilb and his mother was played by Sally Dodge. Dodge seemed to be right in style with her fellow players but Kilb was deliriously under-the-top in his role. He did define the awful difference in the mental capacity of his doctor with that of Mark Wilson’s physician though, as Wilson’s Purgon was equally over-the-top.
Angelique’s lover, Cleante, was played by a very young Bailey Lapo-McDermott and he was handsome, charming and delightful in his “impromptu” wooing of his lady-love.
Smith’s direction included a bizarrely extended balletic finale which brought the entire company onto the stage prior to their bows. It was something I could easily have done without. Generally, however, her work for this production was fine, bringing focus to the script and characters, giving moments to those actors who deserved them. She is more than ably assisted in this through the very fine music of Cathy Schane-Lydon who accompanies the entire play with her own excellent compositions played on the harpsichord. Argan may be ill, he may not be ill, but he can apparently support a house-musician who sits in his room and plays all day and all night. Fun to be him.
Sam Reilly’s set was superb. If I were to build a house, I’d hire him to do the interiors. Joanne Maurer and Carol Pinkowski dressed the company superbly. Isabel Filkins, lighting designer, in conjunction with Barbara Leavell-Smith and Reilly need to address time of day. When the program tells us that the second act (second half of the first act here) is “the following morning” and we have two large windows dominating the set, we cannot see blackness outside. We need light. We need light even if the cyclorama behind the set is one color. We need to have an understanding of how time works in this play. Either this or everyone should enter carrying a wet umbrella.
This is not the easiest piece of theater – did you get that? This realization is so much better than one might have expected. It is not a perfect evening of theater. As a comedy it isn’t a barrel of laughs, but in spite of health issues and a general attack at the medical profession, no one dies; no one even gets hurt. It is an enjoyable time at the Ghent Playhouse and it is a play every theater lover should get to know. You have an opportunity here.
The Imaginary Invalid plays through June 5 at The Ghent Playhouse on Route 66 west of Ghent, New York. For information and tickets, consult the Berkshire Edge calendar, contact the theater at 1-800-838-3006 or go on line at ghentplayhouse.org