Just in time to give us a thankful Thanksgiving, Beck Center has selected an ideal theatrical frame for Dorothy Silver's effulgent slide show of the human condition. Cleveland's grand dame of theater is sharing her beatific glow these days during the second half of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads 2, an evening of monologues starring societal outcasts.
The danger of appraising a Silver performance is that sneaky way she has of turning even the most hard-edged critic into a gushing, little-boy sycophant. It goes beyond mere experience, talent and charisma.
To approximate a peak "Silver" experience, you have to visualize Jack Benny's divinely exasperated "well!," a Maria Callas mad scene or a Picasso-drawn bull. Like them, Silver is, at her best, the quintessence of her craft - the gold standard by which all other Cleveland-area actors should be judged.
As in the manner of Jessica Tandy and Lillian Gish, Silver has become more fragile, vulnerable and elemental in her advancing years. So when she squanders her gifts on inappropriate material, it becomes a tragic waste of glorious resources. That's not the case here.
Alan Bennett is the aesthetic love child of Tennessee Williams and Noel Coward. Like the former, he renders poetry out of the struggles of the disenfranchised. And like the latter, he focuses a knowing magnifying glass on the telling quirks of the British classes.
In his recent The History Boys, Bennett created a theatrical epic about the intrinsic value of education. Talking Heads and Talking Heads 2, on the other hand, are exquisite miniatures, originally created for television, that explore the plights of people trapped by circumstances or obsessions.
Silver's vehicle, "Waiting for the Telegram," introduces a 95-year-old nursing-home resident who recounts an entire life history with unusual lucidity.It's a superb tour de force that takes Violet from a bawdy meditation on the meaning of "penis" - she's just been flashed by a fellow resident - to a heartbreaking rendition of an unconsummated encounter with a cherished flame who never returned from war.
On vivid display is Silver's unique intensity, which makes every member of the audience a lucky witness to Violet's rueful glee and unfulfilled ardor. The cunning gleam in Silver's eye brings to mind the undying magnetism of Ethel Barrymore and Bette Davis at their most captivating.
The director of "Waiting for the Telegram" has been cohabitating with Silver since 1949, so he should know how to tap into her best qualities. Reuben Silver has collaborated with her on three children and untold numbers of memorable performances. The Beck Center showcase is a testament to the unending bounty of this partnership.
In a Dorothy Silver production, the other actors often are eclipsed by the woman's relentless brilliance. It's fortunate that Robert Hawkes has his own time in the spotlight in the evening's opening entry, "Playing Sandwiches," a sympathetic glance into the compulsion that drives a child molester, smartly directed by Curt Arnold.
Silver emphasizes the universal rather than the specific Britishness of her character. Hawkes takes the opposite approach as Wilfred, playing up lower-class mannerisms to telling effect. Ê
Ever since Homer recited The Odyssey at the campfire, all theater has really needed are great stories and equally great storytellers. Talking Heads 2 is endowed with both.
Talking Heads 2 Through December 7 Beck Center for the Arts 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood 216.521.2540