In 1895, a rehearsal of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “La Traviata” is interrupted by a confused old man who walks in off the streets of Paris. He claims to be looking for a woman named Marie du Plessis, the “lady of the camellias,” the most notorious courtesan in France.
Once his lover, they broke up after less than a year because of his jealousy over her many wealthier clients. Suddenly, he beholds a lovely young performer and, believing it is his Marie, rushes to her, begging for forgiveness and reconciliation.
But she is not Marie.
Befuddled, he admits that Marie has been dead for 48 years. Before he can be ejected, an elderly member of the troupe recognizes him as Alexandre Dumas, author of the popular 1848 novel “La Dame aux Camelias,” which he adapted for the stage under the same name in 1852.
Known in English as Camille, it became the most successful play of the 19th century, and Verdi used it as the model for his immortal opera.
This thunderbolt causes a sensation. Everyone has heard of Dumas, the son of the Alexandre Dumas who wrote “The Three Musketeers” and “The Man in the Iron Mask.” The rehearsal stops, and everyone present crowds around him with questions about the play: “Is it true? Did it really happen?”
That is the question that haunts “Dumas’ Camille,” by Charles Morey, running at Peterborough Players through Aug. 25.
“Dumas’ Camille” is not an opera, though Verdi’s gorgeous melodies weave like smoke throughout its dialogue. Nor is it historical drama; Morey freely admits that while the first three quarters of the play is based on fact, the climax is entirely fictitious.
“I could not resist the conjecture of what might be the artist’s response when confronted with the conflicting realities of memory, art, artifice, and self-image,” Morey explains in the program.
Throughout, Dumas, achingly portrayed by Players’ Artistic Director Gus Kaikonnen, sits in a chair on stage commenting on the story — enlarging on it, explaining it, even revising it in mid-rehearsal. Though he defends his departures from fact in the name of bringing form and shape to the messiness of reality, by the end, he is almost as uncertain about the truth of the tale as anyone else.
“I made it all up,” he bitterly concludes, to the disappointment of his audience on stage.
But not his audience in the theater. This two-and-a-half-hour production, though perhaps overlong or repetitive in places, is an extraordinary rebuttal to the notion of summer stock as frivolous, lightweight fare.
It combines the impressive technical achievements — sets, costumes, lighting and sound — we have come to expect in Peterborough with such rare pleasures as operatic arias and duets from Alex Carr and Bridget Beirne, who enact parallel scenes from “La Traviata” throughout the play; bold and tender characterizations from Jeremy Beck and Rebecca Brinkley as the ardent lovers Armande and Marguerite; masterful comic interludes (in multiple roles) from Tom Frey, Kraig Swartz and willowy Carol Burnett look-alike Lucy Zukaitis; and the playwright Morey’s intelligent and fast-paced direction.
This voluptuous feast of music and melodrama reminded me of a curtain speech I heard on this stage from the late, great, James Whitmore some years ago. He begged the enchanted audience to support and appreciate this 86-year-old treasure hidden in the New Hampshire woods.