Love Before the Ruins 

Aurora's Marius is a fine and bittersweet thing.

If the recent violence is spoiling your plans for travel in France, the Aurora has a safe and much cheaper alternative in its production of Marcel Pagnol's Marius, the first in the "Marseilles Trilogy" that helped Alice Waters name her restaurants. Set in Marseilles in 1929, this production is a fine and bittersweet thing, punctuated by a modern translation and standout performances.

Marius is the story of two people in love who must decide what they can stand to lose. Eventually one of them will have to sacrifice something important, but up until the very last minute we don't know which of them it will be. As the characters pile up promises, lies, misunderstandings, and well-intentioned schemes, the suspense builds through the whole play. Who will Fanny marry? Will Marius succumb to the wanderlust that makes him run to the door of his father's cafe every time he hears a ship's horn? And what is the nature of true love: jealousy or sacrifice, or some of both? What do we owe the people we love?

This is not contemporary Marseilles with its cars and nurseries on fire, but a wistful seaside town between the wars, clanging with ships' bells and redolent of fresh shellfish. The men lunch on oysters and white wine and meet to play ribald hands of cards. Fanny reads a novel in the sun between customers. A barefooted, soot-covered stoker bursts into the cafe looking for his boss Escartefigue, a ferry captain who instructs the young man to let out a few good whistle blasts so the passengers waiting on the other shore won't know that he is dawdling over his morning aperitif. The people are good people, solid and loving and as basically clueless about each other as people everywhere, and this cast makes them vibrant and affecting.

Robert Ernst and George Maguire are marvelous as cafe owner César and wealthy sailmaker Panisse respectively. Ernst's César is brash but loving, the sort of man who cheerfully cheats at cards even when he's playing solitaire. Meanwhile Maguire has the hands of a stage conjurer, whether he's wiggling them like little fish or winding up to fight with one of the other men. While all of the relationships are solid in this play, the one between César and Panisse is the juiciest. Maguire will turn over the Panisse role to Julian López-Morillas after December 12, which shouldn't be too painful a transition. but Maguire is dear in the part, shading from arrogance to tenderness.

Of the young lovers, Jessa Berkner's Fanny is the more distinct. Fanny is a little minx, but basically innocent. Eighteen years old, she has loved Marius since she was tiny, but she's too prideful to come right out and say it, so she engineers a scene between he and Panisse that snaps with tension. Berkner's Fanny's delicacy conceals a will and depth that drive the last act.

The clarity of what she wants contrasts with Marius' confusion. He longs for the sea, with a blinding passion that transforms him from surly and volatile to wistful and poetic. Pagnol has him describe the sight of a ship laden with dark and light wood that smells of "camphor and black pepper" such that you want to eat that wood. Daniel Donoghue plays Marius pretty straight, with very nice stuff in the quiet moments with his father, César. Of all the relationships, the parent-child ones are the truest. Fanny's mother Honorine has the most colorful language, but when amber-voiced Lynne Sofer as Honorine confronts Fanny about Marius, she is deadly serious.

Pagnol was a schoolteacher, but he gave it up at the age of 26 to write plays and make and direct films. He became famous for his play about betrayal, Topaze, and cinephiles will recognize his Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, which also feature themes of betrayal and vengeance. The Marseilles Trilogy is much gentler. Here, local translator Zack Rogow has made some subtle and welcome changes. For example, where the French film version has César telling his son, "A woman's honor is like a match: you can only use it once," here the reference to a woman is taken out, making the advice more universal. What Pagnol captures and Rogow clarifies is the way men and women can be holding two completely different conversations with each other and not realize it. And even as the characters extol the pleasures of love, the table, and the bottle, there's an underlying friction. In 1929, while men were free to take lovers from among widows and other men's wives, young women of virtue had to stay that way or risk disgrace.

Besides its people, this play is very much about Marseilles, from the length of the famous Pont du Gard bridge to the sounds of stevedores. For anyone wondering why the characters keep talking about that bridge, Pagnol is poking fun at his grandfather, a stonecutter who spent family outings studying it until nightfall. According to his delightful memoir, "And that's the reason why, thirty years after, his sons and daughters at the mere mention of the Pont du Gard would raise their eyes to heaven and utter long groans." Pagnol clearly loved Marseilles, and the Aurora production of Marius shows us exactly why.

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