Living in the past


Lillian Groag set about writing The Magic Fire a few years ago with an interesting image in mind. She wanted to create a big novel for the stage, with the rich texture, large cast of vivid characters and universal issues often found in works of fiction.

Set in the rising turmoil of 1950s Argentina, it is a memory play — a memoir propped up on a stage with some scenery and soft lighting. In the opening minutes, Lise Berg (Robin Moseley), the play’s middle-aged narrator, introduces us to her garrulous family, who has recently immigrated to Buenos Aires to avoid the rise of fascism in Europe.

The play’s title is a reference to Wagner’s Ring Cycle — itself a staged story, conveying in operatic music the mythic tale of the world through its creation, destruction and redemption. In Wagner’s epic, the character Brunhilde is sequestered by a ring of fire her father creates to protect his sleeping child.

The Magic Fire is Lise’s remembrance of her early years in a family that is half-Austrian, half-Italian and half-mad, which makes for poor arithmetic but rich memories. Actor-playwright Groag is theatrically wise, penning a story that gives the Wilma’s performers plenty of opportunities for characterization and "reality" playing.

The play is autobiographical: Groag spent her early years in Argentina, which, like the United States, is a country populated by immigrants. Her father was from Vienna, her mother from Italy, and Groag’s childhood was lived in the shadow of the growing terror imposed on Argentina by its military dictator, Juan Peron.

Lise Berg is the name Groag has given the character who represents her, and early in the play, someone mentions that Eva Peron is dying of cancer. "Nobody I knew was going to be crying for her," an older Lise recalls.

The young girl’s apolitical extended family of Austrians and Italians created a protective cocoon from the violence in the streets by gathering in the Bergs’ elegant apartment and reveling in their European musical heritage. "He walked in three-quarters time," the adult Lise recalls about her Viennese father.

Operas were constantly playing on the phonograph with anyone, including the young Lise, likely to break into sing-along accompaniment.

In this memory play, a middle-aged Lise is the omnipresent narrator, setting up scenes, observing the action from the edges of the stage and sometimes stepping into a scene and even speaking with the precocious little girl who is her younger self.

Lise’s family — aunt, great-aunts, uncle, grandmother — is boisterous, colorful and eccentric, and dramatist Groag finds much warm humor in them. They are a collection of individualists who refuse to be tamed.

Two issues are raised in The Magic Fire: Can a person truly disconnect from a frightening world by retreating into a comforting self-created environment? The other issue involves the immigrant’s need to find his or her place in the world. Lise’s family, like Groag’s, fled Peron’s Argentina for Uruguay, and the heroine eventually settled in the U.S. But that is only part of her identity quest.

The large cast of a dozen actors is uniformly fine. Charles Antalosky’s operatic extravagance cleverly helps to liven this very talkative play. Susan Wilder as Amalia, Lise’s mother, is a beautifully rendered performance. Kaye Kingston is a special delight as Maddalena, the 98-year-old grandmother lashing out at anyone or anything she pleases. James Gale gives a thoroughly convincing performance as a family friend, a newspaper editor silenced by the government.

Sometimes Groag’s writing, though skillful and funny, is middlebrow. People have overly poetic speeches and unconvincingly insightful revelations.

The rather complicated narrative — in which the adult Lise slips in and out of the past, sometimes noticed by the family, sometimes not — is kept moving by director Blanka Zizka, but in this three-hour play, there is more story than is needed to make the point.

David P. Gordon forsakes the lavish drawing-room setting with its polished wood and drapery that drowns out the chaos on the streets below, opting instead for an open, primary set that barely approximates a comfortable, upper-class dwelling.

The play’s memoir form helps to burn an indelible message: Memory deceives. It cannot be trusted. And that, I think, is Groag’s point.

The Magic Fire
Wilma Theater
Broad and Spruce streets
Through Jan. 5
Tickets $5-$41