Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Apologia, presented in its Off-Broadway premiere by Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre, begins with an argument over anchovies. A mother claims that her son never informed her that his new fiancée is a vegetarian. He asserts that he did, but she bristles. “My version of events against yours,” he dryly counters.
The larger themes of Campbell’s 2009 play, seen here under Daniel Aukin’s direction, can be boiled down to that premise. The mother, Kristin Miller (Stockard Channing), is a prominent academic and first-wave feminist, a superstar within the field of art history. After a spectacular career spent in England–she’s an American expat–she publishes her memoir, which gives the play its title. But in doing so, she omits any mention of her son Peter, or his brother, Simon (both played, in a neat parlor trick, by Hugh Dancy). Her “version of events” doesn’t include motherhood.
From there, the play sets up a flimsy dichotomy between professional success and personal fulfillment. Kristin’s triumphs as a scholar and public intellectual–we’re told that her work in the 1970s “changed the way we look at art forever”–meant sacrifices as a parent that still influence how her now-adult sons move through the world. Peter, a successful international banker, hides a wellspring of resentment beneath his suave veneer; Simon, an unstable alcoholic, is a walking wound. They both arrive at her country estate, handsomely rendered by Dane Laffrey’s set design, ready to settle a score.
If reading this description makes you feel uncomfortable and icky, you’re not alone. Though less than a decade old, Apologia feels surprisingly dated and retrograde in its gender politics and its reliance on the trope of a distant, career-driven mother as a catch-all bogeyman. A lot has happened to move the dial, both in theater and the world at large, since the play was first staged.
Despite the now-general acceptance that motherhood and career need not be an either/or proposition, the work seems firmly rooted in a recrimination of Kristin’s choices. Nearly every character in the play gets a go at calling her a failure as a mother, and Campbell places the blame for Simon’s personal problems–mental illness, substance abuse, inability to hold a job, failure to produce a novel (even though he displays no literary talent)–on Kristin’s shoulders. The desire for success and for a place in the world not defined by domestic achievement is seen as a dereliction of duty, a moral failing. Heads, you lose; tails, you’re a bitch.
It’s a credit to Channing’s talent that she keeps Kristin from becoming the harridan the writing virtually demands. Near the top of the play, she delivers a spellbinding monologue about the work of Giotto, and how he bridged the gap between strictly religious iconography and the birth of secularized Western art. She never speaks of her children with such rapture, a fact I suspect we’re meant to notice. But to hear Channing describe “the vision, the power and the responsibility of the artist,” you never doubt her conviction and passion for the work she so clearly loves. No matter what comes later, the moment strongly humanizes her.
Campbell stacks the deck against Kristin–among other things, the portrayal of her late ex-husband verges on hagiography–but Channing keeps the audience squarely in her corner. And as the attacks against her grow more personal and wounding, pangs of sympathy are almost guaranteed.
Dancy does admirable work as Peter, showing how a confident surface can quickly and easily crack. As Simon, though, he too often gets mired in stereotypes of mental illness: halting speech, twitchy movements, glazed eyes. This kind of portrait betrays problems in the writing–the character lacks any depth–and Aukin’s questionable direction of this role doesn’t help matters, but I wish the talented Dancy had avoided the path of least resistance.
As Peter’s fiancée, Trudi, Talene Monahon cannot overcome her character’s smugness. A devoutly religious American from Nebraska, she seems to exist only to represent everything Kristin ran away from when she emigrated to the U.K. She bristles whenever anyone criticizes Christianity–and given Kristin’s firmly held Marxism and atheism, that happens often–but a late-breaking potential crisis of faith gets short shrift. That’s a shame, since it’s the first time Trudi seems fully dimensional.
The company, which also includes Megalyn Echikunwoke (as Simon’s girlfriend, a soap opera actress who, unsurprisingly, contains multitudes) and John Tillinger (as Kristin’s longtime confidant, an older gay Englishman awash in stereotype), has an easy rapport. The play’s two-plus hours mostly move briskly, but it’s hard to overcome the problematic assertions at the heart of Apologia. A more interesting work would engage why it has come to be expected that a woman should put the needs of others above her own–why even the pioneers of women’s liberation couldn’t fully escape the patriarchy’s stranglehold.
Instead, the play ends on the idea that Kristin must seek forgiveness for her transgressions. As the other characters leave her one by one, her gorgeous house becomes a metaphor–surrounded by a life’s work, books and art galore, she sits alone with no one to comfort her. If Kristin’s beloved Giotto created a new way of seeing, Apologia has its eye firmly, and questionably, pointed toward the past.