Portrait of a lady

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday January 28, 2015
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Brenda Meaney plays an English poet visiting India in<br>1930 who admires her portrait rendered by a local artist (Firdous Bamji) in Tom<br>Stoppard's <i>Indian Ink</i> at ACT.<br>Photo: Kevin Berne
Brenda Meaney plays an English poet visiting India in
1930 who admires her portrait rendered by a local artist (Firdous Bamji) in Tom
Stoppard's Indian Ink at ACT.
Photo: Kevin Berne

Tom Stoppard is a bright guy. You won't get much argument with that. And yet it can still feel like he is trying to convince you just how bright he is, with such intellectually demanding plays as The Invention of Love, Arcadia, and Coast of Utopia coming to mind. But in Indian Ink, which had its U.S. debut at ACT in 1999 and where it has now returned in revised form, Stoppard is in a more entertainingly accessible mood. He still interweaves huge swathes of cultural issues in scenes alternately set on two continents and more than 50 years apart, but it's not particularly difficult to follow his multiple trajectories. The challenge falls to him to have them meaningfully coalesce by the end of the three-hour production.

The fact is that he largely succeeds, abetted by director Carey Perloff's clear-headed approach that smoothly integrates, yet clearly delineates, the overlapping scenes set in different decades and locales. The primary locale is a fictional Indian province, both in 1930 and the 1980s, and the 1980s are also the time frame for scenes set at an English cottage, where strangers meet to uncover secrets about close relatives who may or may not have had a forbidden love affair in 1930 in the oppressively hot, culturally isolated, and politically restive province of Jummapur.

The unifying character is a frail young Englishwoman traveling in India for her health, a confounding notion to those who live there, but who is welcomed both by her fellow Brits and by the Anglophile local population because of her celebrity as the author of slightly scandalous erotic poetry. Even among those in favor of the growing independence movement " Gandhi is already making headlines " a fixation on all things British is prevalent. It is genuine, even if the comic deference the Indians show toward their occupiers masks attitudes that remain mostly impenetrable to outsiders.

But trying to untangle the enigma of the poet Flora Crewe (a wispy, spirited Brenda Meaney) has become the life work of a minor American scholar (a comically pedantic Anthony Fusco). He travels to England to interview Flora's elderly sister (an imposing Roberta Maxwell), who is grudging with details, and he then winds up in Jummapur trying to find any hints of a romantic relationship between Flora and an Indian painter (an endearingly and fussily sensitive Firdous Bamji), whose portrait of her ends up years later on the cover of a book of her collected letters. Unbeknownst to him, back in England, the painter's son (an assured Pej Vahdat) reveals to the sister a startlingly intimate portrait his father painted of Flora back in 1930.

Stoppard revels in exploring the essences of culture clashes, especially in how it informs art. There is also a distrust of anything calling itself history, a malleable concept that is impossible to render objectively. When the American academic indicates he wants to follow up his meticulously footnoted collection of Flora's letters with a biography, her sister throws cold water on the idea. "Biography is the worst possible excuse for getting things wrong," she retorts with disdain.

The play is filled with humor, both as clever ripostes and in comic situations that arise as cultures and personalities collide. But never far away is Stoppard's incisive intellect, which, in Indian Ink at least, merely dazzles rather than overwhelms us.


Indian Ink will run at the Geary Theatre through Feb. 8. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 749-2228 or go to act-sf.org.