The 19th century French writer George Sand was many things — a prolific novelist, occasional cross-dresser, revolutionary, famed lover, intellectual, mother, friend — but she likely never expected to be the posthumous spiritual founder of a Berkeley theater company some two centuries after her death.
Nevertheless, in 1991, a group of Bay Area artists came together to stage Dorothy Bryant’s “Dear Master,” an elegant epistolary production which reconstructs and occasionally imagines the written conversations between George Sand and “Madame Bovary” author Gustave Flaubert. Committed to this play, and to produce works like it, the Aurora Theatre Company was born.
The friends, Sand (played by the luminous Kimberly King) and Flaubert (Michael Ray Wisely), communicate by letters. The small set is divided into two opposing pairs of writing desks and couches, places on which Flaubert collapses dramatically when faced with writer’s block, and where Sand sews sweet puppet costumes for her beloved son. With the soft, melancholy music of Chopin (Sand’s most famous lover) as an accompaniment, the pair argue politics, artistic philosophy, share news of ailments and children, critique one another’s work and lament the messy state of France. Like the set itself, the intellectual battle lines are drawn clearly — and early on — between Sand, the indomitable optimist, and Flaubert, the self-flagellating cynic.
Sand is often the more interesting of the pair, aided in part by Kimberly King’s performance. King fully inhabits the role of Sand, carrying herself with a perfect blend of steely strength and mellowness. She plays Sand as giddy, excitable, maternal and often misty-eyed with love but also in possession of a fierce, immovable core. Her ability to pierce through nonsense is useful in her dealings with Flaubert’s misanthropic complaining. In a moment that begged a round of applause, she loudly called him out as a man who loves to suffer.
Flaubert is a more typical tortured artist, an eccentric in an absurd red silk dressing gown with a matching hat, raging against critics and cloistering up in his home in order to devote himself fully to his art. In avoidance of his fellow man, whom Flaubert views as insufferably stupid, he devotes himself to his writing. Every individual word is the fruit of incredible labor. As Flaubert, Wisely occasionally seems as though he is merely reciting the letters rather than living them. Wisely’s performance improves in the face of tragedy — his furious, broken Flaubert (divested of the red gown) of the play’s second half is better than his brocaded misfit Flaubert.
In contrast to his familiar character, Sand is a breath of fresh air. She is casual about her writing, but passionate about art, a lover through and through who believes in the human capacity for freedom, and in true freedom for women, though progress may be slow. Her relentless optimism in the face of disillusionment and war and all contrary evidence is the greatest strength, and a necessary reminder in a year as consistently glum as 2016.
Once these differences in character are delineated, the play begins to sag. The eloquent Sand monologues on life and art are wonderful, but there is no doubt that the script could have been trimmed without losing any vital information, especially when the uninteresting details of illnesses and family troubles are given excessive attention. When Sand begins to cough, “Dear Master” begins to feel like a waiting game for death. A cough, of course, is a sure theatrical death sentence, especially for a 19th century writer. The awful temptation to peek at the program’s chronology to see if the date of the letter being enacted is any closer to Sand’s date of passing begins to creep over.
Yet when the inevitable finally occurs, a collective and well earned sniffle overtook the small theater, and for a good minute, a progressive wave of teary nose clearing was the soundtrack to Flaubert’s grief.
Sand brimmed over with life, and her sheer exuberance was and is contagious. Flaubert is jolted out of his writer’s block by her, the Aurora Theatre creates art in her name and the audience is driven to live a bit more like her — fully, lovingly and with irrepressible hope.