Bloomington Playwrights Project: Symphony for Three

Mike Smith’s “Symphony for Three” at the Bloomington Playwrights Project, set in the turbulent 1960s, takes its inspiration from the story of Clara Schumann’s courage, the descent into madness of her husband Robert and the support of their life long friendship with the young Johannes Brahms in a production directed by Ben Gougeon.

Steve Heise took on the demanding role of Robert. Like the original Robert, he’s a composer who injured his hands. I don’t think that most composers really write the way that Mike Smith has Robert work, and I certainly don’t know any who seem to be able to work so fast with as few cross outs, but the mix of musical terms, instrument descriptions and nature images in his dialog was fascinating. For me, he started out at too high a level of manic energy and this, even with the evening’s roller coaster highs and lows was tiring. Still, his Robert was a magnetic figure. I’m betting that as the show plays in, Heise will modulate more for even better effect.

Alex Martin played the family friend the young Johannes Brahms as a singer/song writer turned rock star. He’s an angelic figure apparently immune to drugs, only occasionally tempted by sex and, most surprising, a skilled money manager. It’s his financial contributions that keep the Schumann’s household solvent. The part seems underwritten, but this may be a purposeful move to keep the focus on Robert and Clara.

Carmen Rae Meyers as Clara is the emotional center of “Symphony for Three.” Unlike the original Clara, she’s not a musician; she’s a success novelist and teacher. Meyers brings an incredible poise and glow to her role and in the divided staging she is frequently placed at the physical center of the action. She made her simple response, “I know,” when Johannes confesses that he’s in love with her was the most eloquent and moving speech of the night.

“Symphony for Three” is presented in short takes from the center and from platforms on the sides of the stage. The carefully chosen spaces are key parts of the drama. At least on opening night, the back and forth seemed a little mechanical and the first act felt longer than it was. I’m betting that this will smooth out. The act runs with a backdrop of the news of the killings of Martin Luther King, Jr., Bobby Kennedy and the students at Kent State followed by the brutalities of the Chicago convention. It lends an effectively grim weight to the first act and is a factor in Robert’s manic mad paranoia.

In the second act there are more of Robert’s ups and deeper downs with a deeper focus and insight into his marriage with Clara and the relationship between Clara and Johannes as Mike Smith’s play continues to explore with skill and depth, the complex workings of what he calls “the human heart.”

By the way, Mike Smith has said that he took his inspiration from Clara and Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, but didn’t look too deeply into the specifics. If he had, he might have learned that there’s some recent research that suggests that indeed, some of Clara and Robert’s children do look a bit like Johannes.

“Symphony for Three” continues at the Bloomington Playwrights Project with evening performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and matinees on Sunday through March 1 st. You can an interview with playwright Mike Smith and director Ben Gougeon on our Arts Interviews page .

George Walker

After completing an M.A.T. degree in English at Indiana University, George Walker began announcing for WFIU in 1967. Along with regularly hosting classical music shows, he interviews artists and reviews plays and operas.

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