Theater Review: BABETTE’S FEAST (Lamb’s Players Theatre in San Diego)

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by Milo Shapiro on January 20, 2020

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


The Shakers have a song in their hymnal that reads:

’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
’Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

Reward for humility and simplicity is a key theme in Lamb’s Players production of Babette’s Feast. This is the west coast premiere of Rose Courtney’s Off-Broadway stage adaptation, conceived by Abigail Killeen, based on Isak Dineson’s 1958 short story of the same name. For those who are fans of Gabriel Axel’s Oscar-winning 1987 Best Foreign Film version, there are some distinct differences in tone and plot, but that doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of stepping closer to the original text.

The ensemble-driven presentation is very narrative in its approach — almost as if the story were being read to us by the townsfolk — with everyone in the cast except Babette participating in narration and often playing multiple characters. The 90-minute one act almost plays like two different but connected stories that take place decades apart in the same remote town “at the very edge of the world” which sits at the base of a fjord in Norway.

In the first half, the stoic, Puritan-like people of a tiny town, Berlevåg, set the context as two sisters encounter gentlemen from the larger world. A military officer named Lorenz Lowenhielm (Ross Hellwig) begins to question his ne’er-do-well values when faced with the minimalism and sincerity in Martine (Rachel Vanwormer). Achille Papin (Charles Evans, Jr.), a famous Parisian opera star, briefly visits the hamlet and stumbles upon the second sister, Philippa (Caitie Grady), a naive but naturally talented church singer. She is unprepared to handle his worldliness but excited at the notion of pleasing God more fully through her singing. While these two smaller tales exist mainly to set up the second half, they are in themselves sweet sharings of innocence, coming of age, and cultural norms.

The main plot occurs some thirty years later, when a French woman, Babette (Yolanda Marie Franklin), is sent to the home of Philippa (now played by Deborah Gilmour Smyth) and her sister Martine (Kerry Meads) to escape political upheaval. Babette, fleeing the brutal suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871, has nowhere to turn and, despite the fact that she barely speaks any Norwegian, finds her way to the sisters’ doorstep. Philippa is touched by her story (told in a letter from Papin to Philippa, who can read and speak French) so the sisters take in the grateful refugee as a cook, having no idea how exceptional her cooking skills are.

This tale leads to a particular celebration, where Babette has decided to repay key members of the town that welcomed her with a big French feast. The stodgy, prim residents are torn between their staunch religious call to simplicity and not wanting to seem ungrateful to their dear Babette. It is within this struggle that much of the fun occurs.

Diana Elledge’s cello accompaniment throughout sets the tone beautifully. Gorgeous operatic singing by Evans and Grady effortlessly captures us, as do the lovely harmonies by the cast in this mostly non-musical production. Director Robert Smyth walks the line perfectly, keeping both the staging and reactions simple but interesting.

Babette’s Feast is reminiscent of a sweet fairy tale for grown ups, with a warm, lovely feeling throughout. Recommended for age 15 and up, as the language and story might not hold younger folks. For the rest of us, Lamb’s serves up a delicious entree.

photos by Ken Jacques

Babette’s Feast
Lamb’s Players
1142 Orange Ave in Coronado
Tue at 7:30; Wed at 2 & 7:30;
Thu and Fri at 7:30; Sat at 4 & 8; Sun at 2
ends on Feb 16, 2019
for tickets, call 619.437.6000
or visit Lamb’s Players

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