By Margret Echeverria
Patience & Sarah is the story of two people of the same sex who fall in love in the early 19th century and, due to a significant lack of agreement in the world for this union, people around the them behave very badly. Even though this is a variation on a familiar theme, the air in the theater is consistently charged with anticipation of what will happen next. Audience members eagerly take their seats again before intermission is over.
I am in tears as Sarah Dowling (Elsa Quéron) explores for the first time the house of Patience White (Nadia Petrella), which she shares with her brother, Edward White (Chad Kranak) and his wife, Martha White (Jessica L. Copland). Quéron gives the character of Sarah such an open heart with her big brown eyes that evoke such wonder and endless curiosity – all sweetly endearing. Patience has fully realized her potential in her current privileged circumstances and this has made her a little bored. Enter this beautiful creature in the far less privileged Sarah who dares speak as a woman of literally pioneering to a more honest life beyond the borders of Connecticut in New York. The chemistry is hot as these characters sing beautiful harmonies by composer, Paula Kimper. Sarah vocalizes her desire for adventure without words at first in the duet, I want to live. The vocalizing is raw and pulls empathy as Patience allows herself to dream the same dream, which has over it the question: Do we do what is easy and expected of us or do we allow ourselves to really live what we truly want? In this time period, what people think is a powerful obstacle to a gratifying existence for these women.
The set, designed by Andrew Rubenoff, is minimal and for some reason he gives Petrella a giant empty easel from behind which to sing. Patience’s occupation of painting could easily have been represented by the bottom half of this obnoxious structure. The costuming, by Nina Paradiz, is representational, a little sloppy, and once again challenges Petrella with foundation garments not suited to a tight button down blouse and a powerfully expanding diaphragm.
It would be easy to rely on the clever and often witty writing of librettist, Wende Persons, to create believable characters — who always sing — but under the hand of director, Douglas Moser, this ensemble commits itself from the first note to bring human struggles on stage right into our hearts. Sarah’s nutty and simple-minded sister, Rachel Dowling (Bryn Holdsworth), was a jewel with many facets as a narcissist, a tattle-tale, a confused ball of teenage hormones and really just kind of bonkers. I couldn’t take my eyes off Holdsworth even when she was silent because I thought she might explode. Pa Dowling (Duncan Hartman), was magnificent in stature and voice. Pa is in fear for his daughter’s safety and for his reputation; Hartman’s part in the production is short, but his impact is huge as he embodies his angst in every cell of himself. The scene in which the Lord’s Prayer is sung while Pa tries to physically beat the dreams out of Sarah will make you want to change the world. The White family prays around Patience who is following the rules, but we see on her face that she wants to be in Sarah’s arms as they rise up to protect herself from Pa. Jealousy and loneliness have trapped Martha (Copland) and we feel conflicted as she manipulates her sister-in-law; if Patience leaves, Martha will have no other friend but her husband, Edward, whom she does not begin to understand.
With society and their families against her union with Patience and Patience lacking the courage to go against the norm, Sarah disguises herself as a boy, leaves home alone and has an adventure on the road with Parson Daniel Peel (Michael Kelly) who is travelling and selling books. It must be said here that Kelly is almost as deliciously handsome as Quéron. One could just put cotton in her ears and blissfully watch them move about the stage. The friendship and mentoring relationship that is made between Sarah and Parson Peel is playful and these scenes also contain the original hymns composed by Kimper, which are such a delight that I’m still humming them days later. Parson Peel finds himself attracted to Sarah and he tells her that he has so often found that men love men in secret that he thinks it could be common. Sarah then reveals her own secret and it’s time for her to go home to Patience.
Edward White is the character of means in this story and so his opinion has great weight. Eventually, Patience and Sarah have the courage to pioneer a new life away together, Edward allows it and, as class would dictate, Pa Dowling consents. The lovers prepare to leave, but not before asking for Edward’s blessing. Kranak and Petrella have given us a complex brother/sister relationship in which there is a power struggle, obviously deep love and years’ long tolerance of each others’ quirks. When the blessing is asked for on stage, somehow these two great performers miss the juice of this moment. I don’t know why Edward finally gives the blessing. The change of heart feels abrupt, but it is the only moment that is off in the entire work.
If you did not see Patience & Sarah during LGBT Pride Week in New York City, you have missed it . . . for now. It is my hope that we will soon have another opportunity to see this opera. When that opportunity arises, I advise you to not miss it. You will leave the theater afterward with hope in your heart and, believe me, a little turned on by this wholesome tale of forbidden desire.
Patience & Sarah Composed by Paula Kimper; Wende Persons, Librettist; based on the Novel by Isabel Miller; Stage Director, Douglas Moser; Orchestra Manger, Rich Johnson; Lighting and Scenic Design, Andrew Rubenoff; Costume Design, Nina Paradiz; Stage Manager, Jacquelyn Bell.
WITH Elsa Queron (Sarah), Nadia Patrella (Patience), Michael Kelly (Parson Peel), Chad Kranak (Edward White), Jessica Copland (Martha White and Ma Dowling), Duncan Hartman (Pa Dowling), Bryn Holdsworth (Rachel Dowling).