Few novelists would seem to elude dramatic adaptation as successfully as Proust. “In Search of Lost Time” implicitly places the theater at the bottom of an artistic hierarchy, as the youthful narrator Marcel grows out of his fascination with the actress Berma to take up the painter Elstir and the writer Bergotte. Though Proust’s gargantuan novel by no means lacks for dramatic scenes, each is thoroughly encrusted with the sinuous, labyrinthine reflection that is the work’s main mode. Mary Zimmerman has quixotically pursued Proustian adaptation before, with her vivid “Eleven Rooms of Proust.” She and About Face Theatre have returned to the graphomanic Frenchman with this elegant one-woman show, a glimpse at the life of Proust’s longtime maid Celeste. The dutiful structure by which Zimmerman’s play alternates the narration of Celeste’s life with dramatized episodes from the book falls uncomfortably near the realm of public television documentary; a less schematic execution might have allowed the novel’s language to breathe more vitally. But “M. Proust” succeeds in perhaps the primary task such a project can assume: it evokes the addictive, almost suffocating atmosphere of the book for those who have read it, and it provides a well-chosen sampler of text to tempt in those who haven’t. Mary Beth Peil deftly handles a diabolically complex role. As Peil plays Celeste playing Proust playing the Duc de Guermantes playing one of his guests as he recounts an anecdote, one senses for a moment the grandeur and complex folding structure of a book that remains the pinnacle of literary art. (John Beer)
About Face Theatre’s “M. Proust” plays at Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted, (312)335-1650, through July 9.