Threads of 'Silk' Weave Inner Life of Love

The play Silk tells the story of a Frenchman who travels to Japan in search of silkworm eggs and becomes enamored with a concubine. Though the two never speak or touch, strong feelings develop between them. Chicago Public Radio's Edward Lifson reports on how Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman is handling this emotionally charged play, which will finish its run at Chicago's Goodman Theatre on June 5.

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The novella "Silk" winds its way through the life of a French merchant who must reconcile his inner fantasies with his daily reality. Now "Silk" has been adapted for the stage. Its director is the Tony award-winning Mary Zimmerman. She's known for her stunning and imaginative visual style, such as her production of "Metamorphosis," which took place in and around a large pool of water on stage. Chicago Public Radio's Edward Lifson reports on how the director handles this new work.

EDWARD LIFSON reporting:

"Silk," the novel and the play at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, focuses on Frenchman Herve Joncour. He buys and sells silkworm eggs in the 1860s. His small town depends on him, but one year, an epidemic knocks out silkworms all around the world, except in Japan, and so Joncour is sent there. His wife remains home.

(Excerpt from "Silk")

Unidentified Man #1: This place, Japan, where precisely is it?

Unidentified Man #2: That way and keep going right to the end of the world. It's an island made up of a lot of other islands, but for the last 200 years, it's been cut off from the rest of humanity, locked itself down, wouldn't let a soul in. You could leave if you wanted, but if you came back, you'd hang.

(End of excerpt)

LIFSON: After a long and tough journey, Herve Joncour arrives at the mountaintop estate of a lordly Japanese silk trader. A back panel rises to reveal a stunning Japanese room with sliding screens, dark wood and a courtyard full of pink cherry blossoms. And right in the center of the scene, lying languorously in a bright red dress of silk is a young woman, says director Mary Zimmerman.

Ms. MARY ZIMMERMAN (Director, "Silk"): It when she opens her eyes it sort of changes the silkworm merchant's life. He becomes obsessed with this woman.

LIFSON: They look longingly at each other for what seems like an eternity, but at least for, now they cannot touch. Joncour will make several trips to Japan.

Ms. ZIMMERMAN: I think it's a story about two things. One is the sort of sorrow of the fact that we tend to find love not next to us but in imaginary, far-off places, that it's hard to keep desire within our marriage.

LIFSON: Zimmerman has been so faithful to Alessandro Baricco's short novel that she includes a narrator.

(Excerpt from "Silk")

Unidentified Narrator: Summer. For the first time in his life, Herve Joncour took his wife to the Riviera.

ELAINE (Herve's Wife): Some day soon I know we will have children.

Mr. HERVE JONCOUR: Of course we will.

ELAINE: Perhaps here in such a lovely spot we might, we might...

Mr. JONCOUR: I have no doubt.

ELAINE: What do you think it will be? A boy or a girl?

Mr. JONCOUR: A boy, of course.

ELAINE: Me, too. A boy.

Unidentified Narrator: The night before leaving, Herve Joncour happened to wake while it was still dark, get up and approach Elaine's bed. When she opened her eyes, he heard his own voice murmuring...

Mr. JONCOUR: I shall always love you. I shall always love you.

(End of excerpt)

LIFSON: And yet Joncour is already thinking of the other woman on the other side of the Earth, says Mary Zimmerman.

Ms. ZIMMERMAN: He always has that one foot in Japan in this longing, this yearning.

LIFSON: Zimmerman says the other idea in the book is the compensation of art. That unfulfilled desire can be fulfilled through art.

Ms. ZIMMERMAN: The moment he comes back to France after first being in Japan he starts to design a garden for his hometown and this becomes a sort of obsessive project for him. And even though this sort of relationship, sort of imagined relationship, with the woman ends catastrophically, in the end, he builds this garden which has a permanence.

LIFSON: He could barely touch the woman in Japan. He could not read her love note, but the fantasy becomes a reality for Joncour. And this is what attracted Mary Zimmerman to "Silk" in the first place.

Ms. ZIMMERMAN: I sort of feel like I know that life really, really well. I feel that I know what it is to look like you're having a particular life but actually be having another, and I'm someone who's lived in my head my whole life, and I actually think people in the theater, in general, have a kind of double life in a very practical way. You know, you'll go to a play and see someone playing King Lear and then you'll see them getting on the L afterwards.

LIFSON: "Silk" has a great surprise ending which we will not give away. Local theater critics were divided on this production. Here's Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune.

Mr. MICHAEL PHILLIPS (Chicago Tribune): Well, I was a little disappointed. It's as beautiful as any of Mary Zimmerman's productions are, but I'd say it was--slightly static theatrical experience, I thought. Yeah, I associate Zimmerman's work, her best work, I think, with a more abstract and magical kind of scenic effect in that she'll create whole worlds and universes with just, you know, a simple prop or two or a handkerchief or something. Here when we go to Japan, we're getting a big, somewhat realistic depiction of a mountaintop nobleman's home. And it's a different kind of spectacle and maybe a less truly inventive kind of spectacle than I'm used to seeing in a Zimmerman production.

LIFSON: Theater critic Hedy Weiss of the Chicago Sun-Times loved the play and the direction. She says it compares well to the director's other productions such as "Arabian Knights" and "The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci."

Ms. HEDY WEISS (Chicago Sun-Times): There is something about the way she can manipulate time and the way she can create a kind of visual poetry that just holds you from beginning to end. I think it's really her trademark and it's obvious in this piece.

LIFSON: To research "Silk," Mary Zimmerman traveled to Japan. She searched for an answer to: Which life is more real, the life people think we're living or the fantasy life we live in our head?

Ms. ZIMMERMAN: I think you make an endless figure eight between those two. There's a poem by Roomey(ph) that says we have two shops and we spend our lives running between them, and one of the shops is the shop of our everyday existence and the other is our heart and our internal life and our desires, the way we feel from the inside that's sort of secret.

LIFSON: You may get a chance to see "Silk" outside of Chicago. Here it runs through June 5th at the Goodman Theatre, but as with Mary Zimmerman's other recent works, regional theaters are next. And Broadway producers say they're interested, though that could be real or it could be fantasy.

For NPR News, I'm Edward Lifson in Chicago.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP (Host): And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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