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Photo Credit :: Sara Krulwich
Arts & Entertainment
The Light in the Piazza
By Mark Thompson & Robert Doyle
January 12, 2006 
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If ever you’ve had a dream, says Margaret Johnson, the protagonist of Adam Guettel’s lushly romantic musical The Light in the Piazza, then best that you don’t come to Italy, for it is in Italy that you will once again be confronted by that dream, no matter how deeply-repressed or long-ignored. And for Margaret Johnson, that dream is love, to be loved and to love in return, as the 1950s song “Nature Boy” would have it. That Nat King Cole chestnut might even be a subconscious soundtrack for Margaret Johnson as she and her daughter Clara wander through Florence in Margaret’s attempt to resuscitate some of the feelings she had for her husband when she and he honeymooned in Italy. It is 1953 in this luminous production, marvelously adapted by Craig Lucas from an Elizabeth Spencer novella (first published in its entirety in the New Yorker), and never has Italy and all its post-war allures looked so appealing onstage. While the United States is in the throes of Eisenhower repression and conformity, life in Italy is lived con molta passione, where every apertivo leads inevitably to la passeggiata. Beautifully rendered by oversized arches and portals, fluid sets which glide and turn, and a golden light streaked with gloaming, this Italy is a walker’s paradise, and the cast, merely by walking this way and that, evokes a city of narrow streets and piazzi where around every corner is the promise of love.

Primarily, this is a story of a mother’s love, and Victoria Clark gives a brilliant performance of a Southern woman duty-bound by her background to honor the dictates of her class and upbringing. Mind you, Margaret Johnson sees the humor peculiar to her predicament – the desire to let Clara experience life even as she fears letting her go – for she is acutely aware of how much her own life revolves around caring for Clara. Without Clara, what will become of her – a question which brings out the lioness in her, before allowing herself to surrender to the transcendent power of love. This transformation, when it occurs, is miraculous to witness – but then, so is the entire production. With a highly-intelligent book by Lucas and passionate music and lyrics by Guettel, this is a love story which takes seriously the pursuit of love. No quest in life is more honorable in the minds of these characters – and when Margaret Johnson realizes the depth of Clara’s feelings for Fabrizio, nothing can keep her from honoring love’s power.

Not unlike the very best of relationships, The Light in the Piazza is a musical built upon small and intimate moments, which, upon reflection and with time, become expansive and resonant, much like Guettel’s chamber-like score. A straw boater lifting into the air, the pause before a kiss upon a gloved hand, the shattering of a glass, the turn of a wrist, a tap on the chest – all these moments add up to one of the most beautiful love stories ever performed onstage. Given the many strengths of this tasteful production (an exemplary cast, evocative lighting, stunning sets, and drop-dead costuming, as well as pitch-perfect direction by Bartlett Sher), it is no small wonder that you leave the Lincoln Center Theater believing in unconditional love – and your heart reflecting its own light across the plaza.