After Sept. 11, a great many people were so sad we thought we never would smile again. And yet, during the past year, most of us have found some reason for joy: the birth of a child, the discovery of a new friend or even a garden coaxed into bloom.
Life goes on, with its ever-varying mixture of rapture and heartbreak, which, bewilderingly, often exist at the same moment.
This is the great lesson of The Winter's Tale. And the great accomplishment of the Shakespeare Theatre production directed by Michael Kahn is that it respects the play's splendid, jarring shifts of emotion without trying to reconcile or make sense of them. After all, we can't understand the emotional shifts of real life; the best we can do is to hold on and try to survive them. Why should we expect more onstage?
The first half of The Winter's Tale is a tragedy. Leontes, King of Sicily, is pathologically jealous of his pregnant wife, Hermione, and his erstwhile best friend, the King of Bohemia. He orders the blameless Hermione imprisoned, where she gives birth to a baby girl, Perdita. In short order, Hermione seems to die from grief and shame, as does her young son, Mamillius, the king's heir. The infant is abandoned in a desolate part of Bohemia.
Although Leontes has no evidence to support his suspicions, Philip Goodwin never turns the Sicilian king into a monster, as less sophisticated actors have done. Goodwin shows us Leontes' fragility; the king is tortured by his imaginings, and it is painful to watch him shred onstage.
In some productions, it can seem that Leontes' jealousy springs up without warning, but Kahn and Goodwin make it clear from the time the curtain rises that something is troubling the Sicilian king. He is preoccupied, even when he's with his adored son. When he instructs his wife to beg the King of Bohemia to extend his visit, it's apparent that it's a test, and his scheming prepares the audience for Leontes' outburst several minutes later. The only wonder is that no one in the royal household seems to have noticed earlier that something is horribly wrong with him.
The second half of The Winter's Tale is a pastoral romance with rustic dances, clowns and characters in disguise. Sixteen years after the infant Perdita has been discovered in the wilderness and rescued by a kindly shepherd, the comely lass is being courted in secret by Florizel, the son of the Bohemian king. Perdita is concerned - rightly as it turns out - that the king will oppose a match between his heir and a commoner, and the couple flees to Sicily.
Any reasonably bright child of 10 will guess what happens next.
The two halves of the play could not seem more different. The two courts - cold, barren Sicily and verdant Bohemia - could not seem more different. So Walt Spangler's set subtly underscores the similarities between the two regimes, both ruled by kings who act tyrannically and unintentionally wound their children.
Spangler has mounded the stage with hills, and covered everything with wooden planks. Depending on the lighting, the planks resemble snow, the mountains or sand.
In stage center, Spangler has erected a wall of transparent, mirrored cubes. Occasionally, we see behind this wall to scenes set in the past or in the spiritual world. Spangler seems to be saying that these realms always inform the present and occasionally intrude upon it.
It is beautiful and evocative, but unyielding; the play offers more comfort than this set supplies. I longed for an occasional fringed drape or overstuffed chair, something to soften and cushion the hard and gleaming surfaces of this world.
But if the set lacks warmth, the performances provide it. The second great theme of The Winter's Tale is forgiveness; if it's a stretch to believe that a statue can come to life, perhaps it is best understood as a metaphor. Many a wronged wife has become stone for 16 years, only to reanimate after a long and sincere repentance. Lise Bruneau gives Hermione the heat - in all senses of the word - that her character requires.
Tana Hicken is a Baltimore treasure. As Paulina, the only member of the court strong enough to stand up to Leontes, Hicken is a concentrated flame of a woman. Her voice wobbles and flickers with unrelenting rage, a rage that purifies and eventually heals Leontes.
And just when all the angst is getting a bit much, David Sabin and Patrick Ellison Shea (as Perdita's adopted father and brother) and Donald Corren (as the thief and trickster Autolycus) turn in nimble comic performances.
It's significant, perhaps, that the play's "message" is delivered not by courtiers, but by clowns. In a small scene just before intermission, a bear (cannily envisioned as half-human, half-beast) mauls an innocent man, and the attack is described in gruesome, graphic detail by the shepherd's son. Meanwhile, a few yards away, the Old Shepherd discovers the abandoned infant and begins cooing to her.
Life and death, sorrow and joy are side by side and inextricable.
The Winter's Tale
Where the Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. N.W., Washington.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 20.
Call: 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org