There's an interesting quote by a photojournalist named Jacon A. Riis, who once said, "I'd look at one of my stonecutters hammering away at a rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet, at the hundred and first blow, it would split in two, and I knew it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before." This quote perfectly sums up the life of Clovis (Annie McGovern), a passionate painter from the 19th century, who suffered an emotional breakdown after a lifetime of being hammered away at by a society that did not treat women as equals. Heather McDonald's feminist drama Dream of a Common Language spotlights Clovis and other female painters like her, who struggled to earn respect in an industry dominated by men.
Dream of a Common Language is not always an easy play to follow, because the dialogue does not sound authentic and natural. The characters often speak slowly into the distance, as if every word they have to say is an important piece of profound, life-altering advice. When the cook, Dolores (Kelli Lynn Harrison), recounts memories from her past, the lights change and beautiful, melodramatic music composed by Chip Barrow and John D. Ivy and performed by Barrow and Zsaz Rutowski fills the theater, even when the speech is not deserving of such a dramatic score.
These stylistic elements do not always work in terms of enlightening us to the true natures of the characters. But they do not detract either, since the characters are all artists, highly emotional and explosive artists at that, who are not fluent in the art of small talk. Clovis's husband, Victor (Kerry Waterson), in particular loves words too much to waste them on pleasantries. But Clovis is guilty of this too, only acknowledging her son, Mylo (played by child actor David Kahn), when his comments refer to her paintings.
The story opens in Clovis's spacious backyard garden, where she frequently retreats to reflect on her past. McGovern plays Clovis with a whimsical, airy nature, expertly constructing a multidimensional character that is both jaded by life and able to see the world with all the wonder and splendor of a young child.
Victor shows considerably less dimension. He has been so conditioned to think of women as inferior that he does not realize how shattering his comments are to his already fragile wife. His ignorance feels unjustified, because there is no evidence of the weaker-sex stereotype in the women he surrounds himself with.
One of his best friends is a strong-willed and determined painter named Pola (Suzanne Barbetta), one of the few women to be admitted into his arts academy. It is she who finally pulls Victor aside to lecture him on how little things can make a big difference, citing as an example the way he often refers to her paintings as "illustrations."
But his biggest offense is to throw a dinner party for fellow painters and colleagues while banishing his wife and Pola to the backyard garden. Shunned from the table, the women invite Dolores to join them in opening a few bottles of wine as they throw their own, liberating, no-boys-allowed party. Before Pola's arrival, Victor had complained that Clovis does not smile anymore, but when we see her in the garden, surrounded by friends who support and believe in her, she is flushed, radiant, and giggly.
McDonald keeps the driving reason for Clovis's breakdown a secret until the end of the play, but suffice it to say that despite all of Victor's best intentions to repair his relationship, it is hard to root for his success. McDonald has created a wonderful, free-spirited character in Clovis, making it hard to forgive the person who plays a significant role in delivering the hundred and first blow that finally breaks her.