Faithful to the story and like the film, this stage adaptation uses narration from Dinesen’s story. However, not only are the actors used as storytellers, some of the characters also narrate themselves. Set in a small town in Berleväg, Norway, the most northern outpost of the continent of Europe, the story takes place in 1883 but flashes back to earlier days using hardly any props, much in the same way that Thornton Wilder’s Our Town tells its story.
The beautiful sisters Philippa and Martine have grown up in a strict Protestant community founded by their father the Dean, a very devout and saintly man, whose followers revere him as they avoid all forms of pleasure while they embrace celibacy. Dubbed his “right and left hand” by the Dean, the sisters however are not immune to suitors who flock to their side. Young Lieutenant Lowenhielm, a profligate hedonist, sent by his father to his pious aunt who lives in the community, ingratiates himself in the family, but when he realizes he is not pure enough for Martine, he returns to his garrison a changed man.
French opera star Achille Papin visits the town seeking a rest and is overwhelmed by the beauty of Philippa’s voice he hears in church. Offering lessons to her to be dedicated to God, Achille is so impressed with her innate talent that he kisses her while rehearsing a scene from Mozart’s Don Giovanni which causes her to put an end to the lessons. He leaves more depressed by his intimations of aging than before he arrived.
When their father dies, the sisters grow old using their limited resources to help the less fortunate and become known far and wide as good people. Years later in 1871, Achille sends them a Frenchwoman, destitute after the revolution of the Paris Commune. Although they are hesitant to take in a Catholic and a petroleuse (one who set fires during the uprising), they cannot turn away a penitent and Madame Babette Hersant becomes a member of the family as an unpaid housekeeper and cook. Over the years, the members of the community become crotchety and peevish with each other, brooding on perceived slights.
Twelve years later she informs them that she has won 10,000 francs in the French lottery and wishes to pay for the 100th anniversary commemorating the passing of the Dean with a dinner which she herself will cook. The sisters agree reluctantly as it will be a French meal with food and drink that they have never tasted before and they also worry about her leaving afterwards while she has so much money. However, the meal (to which the now General Loewenhielm attends as he is visiting his aunt once again) opens their eyes and taste buds to the finer things in life, while also opening their hearts and minds to each other and the magic of the universe. It is the cosmopolitan but upright General who guesses who Babette really is. Little do the members of the community realize that it is the wine and the champagne that they are tasting for the first time that releases their inhibitions and cancels out their grievances.
As in Portland, Christopher Akerlind’s minimalistic set uses a nearly bare stage backed by a brick wall with a long table in front of it representing Babette’s kitchen. However, a magic moment arrives when a crystal table with glass place settings and 22 candles appears for Babette’s feast. Designer Oana Botez has dressed the entire cast in dark, austere clothing up to the neck with white ruffs and caps. While Kate Marvin is credited with the sound design, many of the effects are performed by the actors themselves in full view of the audience. Akerlind’s lighting is both atmospheric and creates different spaces on the open stage. Aside from the table setting and Babette’s pot and pans, the props are all pantomimed in the manner of story theater as demonstrated by proponents the late Paul Sills and Mary Zimmerman. All of this means that a great deal is left to the imagination of the audience which is what theater is all about. Some may be disappointed that the play does not go through all six courses of Babette’s feast as described in Dinesen’s original story and Gabriel Axel’s lavish film. However, the courses that appear are mouthwatering enough for any gourmet.
The cast of nine works as a true ensemble with six of the performers demonstrating tremendous versatility playing multiple roles, both men and women. As Babette, a Parisian woman of great loyalty and stature, Michelle Hurst brings formidable authority – even though we never see her cook any meals. Juliana Francis Kelly and conceiver/developer Killeen age beautifully before our eyes as they also become more and more virtuous. Kelly also impresses with her lovely soprano in the musical lessons scenes.
The other actors also impress in their various roles. Sturgis Warner makes the Dean a revered and compassionate man. Jeorge Bennett Watson ages gracefully from the callow Lt. Loewenhielm to his older, more mature counterpart. Steven Skybell is memorable as the French opera star who is wary of his inability to slow down the loss of his abilities as he ages. Sorab Wadia is amusing as Aunt Loewenhielm as well as several ill-tempered townspeople. Elliot Nye is notable as Hans a hot-blooded suitor, Loewenhielm’s callow self, seen in the mirror, and the impish red-haired sailor boy who aids Babette in creating her magnificent dinner. Jo Mei is very different as a series of both men and women.
Like the original story, the stage adaptation of Dinesen’s Babette’s Feast is one of grace and renewal. While it is demanding and challenging in the way that theater used to be before expensive sets and costumes left nothing to the imagination, its rewards are great. Directed by Karin Coonrod, the nine member cast turns this into a magical theatrical presentation that you will not soon forget.
Babette’s Feast (open run)
Theater at St. Clements, 423 W. 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.babettesfeastonstage.com
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission