Play hits the hard issues Tough love: Inspired by two characters in Turgenev, playwright Elizabeth Egloff asks the big moral questions in 'The Lover,' premiering at Center Stage.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TC Elizabeth Egloff had been living with Elena Nikolayevna Stahov and Dmitri Insarov for nearly two years before she made them the centerpiece of her play "The Lover."

Inspired by these central characters in Ivan Turgenev's 1859 novel "On the Eve," Egloff's play will receive its world premiere at Center Stage beginning Friday.

Elena and Dmitri came into Egloff's life in 1994 when the feature film division of PBS' "American Playhouse" series hired her to write a screenplay based on a novel by William Trevor called "Reading Turgenev."

"All I knew about Turgenev was Dostoevski hated him," says Egloff (pronounced "EGG-lov"). Although she hadn't read any Turgenev before the "American Playhouse" assignment, she immersed herself in the 19th-century Russian writer's fiction as preparation for the screenplay.

And, despite Dostoevski's opinion, she says, "I was struck by Turgenev's sense of metaphor, his sense of nature and his sense of melancholy as a delicious experience." She was also struck by the young lovers in "On the Eve," who, she explains, "filter in and out of 'Reading Turgenev,' " a screenplay that remains unproduced due to American Playhouse's loss of PBS funding.

In "On the Eve," Elena, the pampered daughter of Russian aristocrats, gives up everything to marry Dmitri, a Bulgarian revolutionary. "The force of her youth is relentless and ruthless," the 42-year-old playwright explains over coffee in one of Center Stage's rehearsal halls. "She will fulfill herself at the expense of her mother, her friends, even her own safety."

Elena's determination, and the tough issues that love leads this sheltered young woman to confront, were among "The Lover's" attractions for Center Stage artistic director Irene Lewis, who is directing the production.

"Elena asks rather pithy questions about existence in general and about our purpose, and I think that part of the play appeals to me -- those bigger moral questions," Lewis says. "To find a contemporary writer who's writing about those larger issues is really also what drew me to the script."

In addition, the setting of the "The Lover," on the eve of the Crimean War, turned out to be remarkably topical in light of the current conflict in the Balkans. "Some of the speeches seem directly from the newspaper," Lewis says. "It's uncanny. I'm not making an effort to say, 'See how relevant this is.' I think it works better with its own echoes. It says it itself."

Egloff doesn't research a play until she has finished her first draft. For "The Lover," most of her research involved studying "the roots of the Balkan conflict," she says. "The hardest part was figuring out how a Bulgarian would feel visiting Moscow at the start of the Crimean War. The writing of the play was very much informed by the experience of Chechnya and Vietnam -- that sense of being an outsider in a country pretending to be your friend."

Similar attitudes

After completing her research, she concluded, "In the world of this play, the attitudes of 19th-century Muscovites are strikingly similar to our own.

"People in this play are full of misinformation," she explains. "The war seems confusing and tragic, and you can't get a handle on what's going on there, and in some terribly tragic sense, it's very romantic."

Writing "The Lover," however, reinforced her support of the United States' role in Bosnia. "I absolutely think we should be there. We do seem to be making a big difference in terms of providing focus to the Bosnian conflict, and now the Bosnian peace," she says.

Other adaptations

"The Lover" isn't Egloff's only dramatic adaptation. Her version of Euripides' "Phaedra" was produced off-Broadway last season, and her interest in the great Russian writers has also been manifest in an adaptation of Dostoevski's "The Devils," as well as a pair of one-act plays she adapted from short stories by Gogol.

Despite her penchant for adaptations, Egloff makes no claims of loyalty to her sources. "I can't take on an adaptation unless I feel an inherent respect for the writer," she says. "But that said, I drop everything that doesn't click for me." In the case of "The Lover," time periods and settings have been compressed, some characters have been combined and others eliminated.

Although three of her five full-length scripts are adaptations, Egloff is best-known for an original work, "The Swan," which premiered at the Actors Theatre of Louisville's prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays in 1990. The play tells the story of a trumpeter swan that crashes into a Nebraska living room and proceeds to molt into a man and win the heart of a disenchanted nurse.

Dissimilar as this may sound to "The Lover," the two plays share a number of themes that recur in Egloff's work. Chief among these are the notions of unlikely or unattainable love, the chance for freedom that this love offers to the female protagonist, and the strength of purpose and self-knowledge she gains through love.

In addition, both "The Lover" and "The Swan" end with the heroine poised at the start of a harrowing adventure. "It's all about a leap of faith that the characters make," Egloff says. "A point where I really connect with Turgenev is that over and over again in his novels, his characters have one chance at true love, and it's this tiny window, and if you miss that window, it's all over."

A winner

After its debut in Louisville, "The Swan" won several new-play prizes and went on to be produced in California and New York as well as Australia, Canada, Italy, Scotland and Sweden. The play began a flurry of interest in this relative newcomer, who didn't have a script produced until the late 1980s.

"She's well-known in theatrical circles and very highly thought of," says Center Stage's Lewis, who has been interested in the playwright's work for some time.

Adds resident dramaturg James Magruder, who brought "The Lover" to Lewis' attention: "We're thrilled that we've managed to snag a premiere of one of the most exciting voices in America. She's one of the hotter playwrights doing serious work. She finds plays where other people don't think of looking."

"The Lover" is a finalist for this year's Susan Smith Blackburn Award, given for a new play written in English by a female playwright. Among Egloff's other honors are a Pew Charitable Trusts/Theatre Communications Group residency at New York's Classic Stage Company, where she wrote "The Lover"; a grant for "The Devils" from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays, which is divided between the playwright and the New York Theatre Workshop, where "The Devils" will be produced next fall; and a three-year Lila Wallace Writers Award, which allowed her to found the Legacy Project, a New York workshop for writers with chronic illnesses. She is seeking funding to continue the project after the grant runs out at the end of this year.

The idea for the Legacy Project was fueled by personal experience. Egloff's mother died of cancer last year, and one of her three sisters suffers from severe rheumatoid arthritis.

Egloff's interest in health matters is also due to the prevalence of medical professionals in her family. Her mother was a nurse, her father is a psychiatrist, as were her paternal grandparents and great-grandmother. Two of her sisters are also clinicians, one a speech pathologist and the other a psychologist.

"The theater was really not anything they were even slightly interested in," Egloff recalls of her childhood in Farmington, Conn.

Family and husband

But her family has been supportive of her career choice, which has brought her not only acclaim but also a husband. She met set designer James Youmans, whom she married two years ago, when he designed the set for her play "Wolf-man" at New York's Manhattan Theatre Club in 1989. Coincidentally, her brother-in-law, William Youmans, is a member of Center Stage's cast for "The Lover."

Egloff came to playwriting rather obliquely. From the time she was 5, she wanted to be a poet. But when she was a graduate student in poetry at Brown University, she says, "I hit a wall. I felt I had nothing to say through poetry."

Feeling "lost," she enrolled in a playwriting course taught by the late poet George Bass. "He had a poetic imagination and approach to writing plays, as if they were giant poems," Egloff recalls.

Suddenly, she realized, "I wanted to write about physical things and physical people and a process of watching an action unfold." After a few years working for publishing houses in

Boston and volunteering for small theaters, she applied to the playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama, telling herself that if she were accepted, it would prove she was a playwright.

Yale connection

Center Stage's Magruder, who was a year ahead of Egloff at Yale, remembers, "Liz was quickly to my mind the most interesting writer during my years there. She was sort of always writing the most interesting things -- wacky adaptations of things."

Egloff's adaptation of "Phaedra" was produced at the Yale Repertory Theatre while she was a student. For the past three years, she has been an associate artist at Yale Rep.

Lately, she's been working on a new play called "City of Heaven," about four people who spend a night in the woods. But she's also begun toying with the idea of writing a novel. While some writers' styles become more minimalist over time, Egloff's writing seems to become more expansive.

Magruder suspects one reason Egloff switched from poetry to plays was because the theater gave her a chance to use different voices to express opposing ideas. Switching to novels, he feels, would offer greater control over those voices.

So far, however, Egloff says writing a novel is just a fantasy. But it's a tantalizing one.

"I think about novels the way I used to think about plays," she says, with a wistful note in her voice.

'The Lover'

Where: Head Theater, Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: Feb. 16 through March 31. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. most Sundays, matinees at 2 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays and at 1 p.m. March 13

Tickets: $24-$29

Call: (410) 332-0033

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