Terrence McNally’s 1995 “Master Class” has seen many revivals, often a showcase for a formidable actor in the role of Maria Callas, played by the likes of Tyne Daly, Zoe Caldwell and Patti LuPone. A piece that is revived expressly for the purpose of providing an actor with a vehicle warrants concern about relevance: Is this a story that we need to continue to tell?
With Janet Ulrich Brooks in the role, under Nick Bowling’s heartfelt and purposeful direction, the answer is a resounding yes.
Brooks as Callas is not gratuitous or overblown, less an inflated diva than a woman with standards, who continues to earn, command and own the audience’s respect and undivided attention. Though not a one-woman show, “Master Class” has similar demands. In a transcendent performance without a false moment, Brooks clears every hurdle, with sharp wit and total honesty. From the moment she makes her entrance onto the breathtaking set designed by Arnel Sancianco, Brooks’ Callas dominates the stage with enviable ease, all at once with so much and nothing to prove.
As Manny, Callas’ accompanist, Stephen Boyer is all charm, and his banter with Callas makes a delightful contribution to the evening. All three singers (Molly Hernandez, Keirsten Hodgens, and Eric Anthony Lopez) perform with truth and technique, and each is deeply affecting in their own way. Bowling and his team keep the production simple and smart, with a keen attention to detail that would meet even Callas’ demands. It is far too easy to say that TimeLine’s production is a master class in making art, but it is also true.
Callas is a bold and imperfect teacher, and McNally asks us to question whether the projection of her own experiences onto her wide-eyed students is really to their benefit. Regardless of our answer, Callas’ experiences are very real and very present, a lifetime of navigating “the people who are everywhere in our lives, but don’t wish us well.” In Brooks’ hands, we are swept up, not in the personalities and rivalries, but in Callas’ profound love affair with her “fire” and excellence.
If we really listen, we have much to learn from her. (Erin Shea Brady)
TimeLine Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 West Belmont, (773)327-5252, timelinetheatre.com, $27.50-$56.50. Through December 9.