Born in Flames

Don't cry for me, Argentina: Sally Wingert plays refugee Lise Berg in Lillian Garrett-Groag's The Magic Fire

The Magic Fire
Guthrie Theater

Families survive on stories. We need them. Without some sort of mythology to pass around the dinner table, most of us would have nothing more in common with our parents and siblings than a shared ability to irritate one another. Fortunately, the eccentric Italian-Austrian-Catholic-Jewish clan in Lillian Garrett-Groag's The Magic Fire makes better dinner conversation than most.

After premiering at the 1997 Oregon Shakespeare Festival and garnering the distinction of "Best of Theater" from Time magazine, The Magic Fire makes its regional debut at the Guthrie. Set in the rising turmoil of 1950's Argentina, it is a memory play--a memoir propped up on a stage with some scenery and soft lighting. In the opening minutes, Lise Berg (Sally Wingert), the play's middle-aged narrator, introduces us to her garrulous family, who have recently immigrated to Buenos Aires to avoid the rise of fascism in Europe.

They seem like a nice bunch. Lise at age 7 (Elizabeth Peterson/Britta Lee Nordahl) is a precocious redheaded scamp, affectionately referred to as "the bad seed" by her bookish father (Nathaniel Fuller) and hot-blooded Italian grandfather (Peter Van Norden). There is aunt Elena (Elizabeth Norment), a comely actress who has been driven briefly from the stage by Argentina's political troubles, and great-aunt Clara (Denise Du Maurier), a loony spinster who always wanted to be a dancer, but now contents herself to disrupt dinner with ridiculously inappropriate stories about the many tragic women in the family who have committed suicide. Rounding out the clan is the ancient matriarch (Barbara Bryne), a shawled and shrewish old lady who has been plucked against her will from the Italian countryside and who takes every opportunity to make her displeasure known.

Though comfortable in Argentina, the Berg family surrounds itself with the accoutrements of the Old World. Richard Hay's set design bespeaks the tranquillity of their domestic life: The lavish drawing room in which most of the play unfolds is all polished wood and drapery, perfectly arrayed and smacking of continental decadence. To drown out the chaos on the streets below, the Bergs bathe in the refined strains of Verdi and argue passionately about the nuances of Tosca. As if reciting a bourgeois mantra, Lise's mother (Judith-Marie Bergan) insists, "no politics or religion at the dinner table."

Lulled by the music, we settle in for a sentimental yet familiar comedy. It will be indulgent in the way that most family memoirs are indulgent, but also enjoyable--as easy to like as it will be to forget. We are not disappointed. The repartee is witty, brimming with references to opera heroes, Beckett ("the dreary Irishman"), and Wagner, the old favorite of romantics and fascists alike. Young Ms. Peterson brings equal parts charm and affectation to the role of Lise, asking for a definition of the word "foreskin" during dinner and engaging in all sorts of general mischief. Du Maurier and Norment fling sitcom-style rejoinders with the casual grace of seasoned comic actors, and when conversation lags, Bryne growls and grumbles for laughs as the long-suffering Italian materfamilias. Wingert makes an elegant ringmaster, as the grown Lise slips seamlessly between interaction with her family and wry, wistful asides to the audience.

Alas, things, as they are wont to do in South American republics, fall apart. (And not a second too soon; with a running time of more than three hours, this Magic Fire burns down to some faint embers.) Midway through the second act, the Bergs' domestic tranquillity is shattered by the passing of Argentina's legendary first lady, Eva Perón. Fascism comes knocking at the door in the charismatic person of Henri (Marco Barricelli), a friend of the family and a high-ranking officer in the corrupt government. As the situation in the city worsens, the atmosphere in the Bergs' apartment turns sour.

Alberto (J.C. Cutler), another family friend and the editor of an opposition newspaper, is causing trouble by publishing editorials about labor strife, government repression, and other nasty stuff that's going on outside. Compounding the conflict is the fact that the Bergs' maid (Marquetta Senters) is harboring a fugitive in the kitchen. In the climactic scene, the Bergs struggle to maintain the illusion of normality during young Lise's 7th birthday party as the world around them dissolves into anarchy.

As The Magic Fire fades in the melancholy afterglow of the party scene, we, like Lise, realize that we have been duped. Having lured us with the promise of a simple, nostalgic memoir, Garrett-Groag counters with a political sucker-punch aimed squarely at our middle-class midsections. For all their charm and wit, their love of art and music, and their good intentions, the Bergs are paralyzed in the face of fascism. They want to do the right thing, but their world is constructed of words, and when the wolves come knocking at the door, they do not have the courage to act. Worst of all, we realize, the Berg family is not much different from our own.


The Magic Fire runs through February 14 at the Guthrie Theater; (612) 377-2224.

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