"Perhaps if you had remained still," says George, the distracted artist, to the woman he loves, currently on the way out the door for good, having settled for a lesser man. "Perhaps," she says, sadly, knowingly, "if you would look up from your pad."
There are 15 words in that exchange by two characters created by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, 15 words that distill every fragile, failing relationship in the world better than any other 15 words that you can recall from a work of musical theater. Before one launches into order, design, tension, composition, balance, light, any aesthetic whatnot, really, it's worth observing that such deeply wise crystallizations are why "Sunday in the Park With George" is that rare work, for all its formative eccentricities, that can bring about the kind of intense reaction in an audience that Gary Griffin's formidable production brought about at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Wednesday night, very much as if this 29-year-old musical were opening for the first time.
No other musical points out more succinctly the perils of not living in the moment; no piece better conveys not just the struggles of creativity but the doubts and humiliations; no show has such a profound understanding of what it's like to live around someone with the toxic mix of workaholism and self-doubt. Yes, this is nominally a musical about a painting ("A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte") that improbably belongs to Chicago, but it's really about how we all so desperately want to make our mark on the world but rarely know how to live in it, and we certainly never know how to leave.
This time last year, Griffin knocked "Follies" halfway into Lake Michigan. Griffin's "Sunday in the Park" is not quite such a bravura moment — this is a very different kind of piece — but this is another world-class production, a deeply wrought piece of Chicago theater populated by the finest singers and further confirmation of Griffin's chops as a distinguished Sondheim interpreter. His production of "Pacific Overtures" at this theater, years ago, made his national career, but I was struck Wednesday by how much Griffin's Sondheim work has matured. He now does not need distinctive concepts to make his mark; he just innately knows how to give these works breath.
The respect Griffin now enjoys in the Sondheim arena means he can attract formidable talent to Chicago, especially for manageable engagements. This "Sunday" is beholden to a formidable performance from Carmen Cusack, whose superb work dominates. Some Dot/Maries manage the coquettish sexuality of Dot, who is bored a lot, but flounder when it comes to asserting the moral authority of Marie, the unstinting older woman in Act 2. Cusack has, remarkably, mastered both. It's a dazzling performance that gets better and better, but its zenith comes during the song "Children and Art" which I've never seen more movingly performed, and I include the otherwise excellent 2008 Broadway revival, which similarly used digitized environments, as does Griffin's show. In essence, Griffin, videographer Mike Tutaj and set designer Kevin Depinet all decided to create an Act 1 dominated by the Seurat painting — an overtly expressionistic take, if you will. I had some early issues that the lack of any feeling of the actual La Grand Jatte locale, but that dissipates, especially since the look of Act 2, with its wonky contemporary art, makes more visual sense to me here than ever before.
For all that, this still is a musical that lives and dies on little analog details. Fans of the piece will known that the first act is set in Seurat's France, while the second takes place 100 years later in a modern museum — in this production, aptly and explicitly, the Art Institute of Chicago — where Seurat's great-grandson, a performance artist and another George, shows up to do a show. His ex-wife, Elaine, is along. The two, we're told, are cordial. But as played by Heidi Kettenring, that seemingly gentle ex has a core of steel. When Jason Danieley's George unwisely goes in for a kiss, her reaction stops him, and us, cold. This moment lasts about two seconds: rarely will you have seen a more potent picture of the hell of trying to do anything of import with an ex-lover. That moment is Danieley's best in Act 2, where he flounders a little in the early scenes before pulling it together once the character arrives back in France. Unusually for actors playing this role, Danieley actually is more comfortable and vulnerable as the historic George, which is a more deeply realized characterization than the Act 2 model, which he has yet to fully figure out. While one watches him finish the hat, as it were, you can enjoy his beautiful singing, all of which strives for the deepest connections.
Danieley's tense little exchange with Kettenring typifies Griffin's most notable achievement here — the extension of the richly observed human details in the writing into the staging of a piece that he has managed to make feel as fresh and latent as the autumnal atmosphere. The great questions of the work float down beautifully: How do you know what's necessary? How do you work and love? How do you get yourself to a Sunday afternoon of no regrets and no panicked ambitions, where you can truly feel the breath of the air?
When: Through Nov. 4
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes
Tickets: $48-$78; 312-595-5600 and chicagoshakes.com