Proust would have approved. The play is Darius, a charming, sad, thought-provoking and unusual 70-minute one-act two-hander. It's an epistolary play. Two performers, Clémentine Célarié and Pierre Cassignard, both veteran French TV and movie actors, speak the letters, and the occasional email, that the characters have written each other over three years. But this is not a Gallic version of A. R. Gurney’s Love Letters.
The foundation of the play by Jean-Benoît Patricot, at Paris’ Théâtre des Mathurins, is a quote from Proust about the major role of smell in sense memory, in triggering remembrance of things past: “But, when nothing subsists of an old past, after the death of people, after the destruction of things, alone, frailer but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, smell and taste still remain for a long time.”
Here’s the plot. Claire, a cancer researcher, has a 19-year-old son – Darius – who does not have long to live. She writes to a man, Paul, that her son was born deaf and is the victim of a degenerative disease. “All his functions are dwindling one by one,” and he “has, in recent years, lost so much muscle mass that he can only move in a wheelchair. Still, he is a happy boy who communicates through sign language.” Now he is going blind. “All we have left is touch – and smell.” For a considerable time, though, mother and son had been able to travel widely and experience joy. Paul, a widower, is a retired master perfumer, an expert maker of scents, but a man who has lost the taste for living.
Claire writes that her idea “is very simple. If you accept – as they say in Mission Impossible – I’d like you to create fragrances that will allow my son to remember all the good times we have shared. I am thinking of the smell of a city, a country, a house, a person.” (The play is presented in French. The English translation I’m quoting is by Sylvia Winter Pollock.)
Claire will pay for Paul's travel, and proposes for his smell-quest places she and Darius have shared: a market in a Provençal town; rue Daguerre, a market street in Paris; Rome; Barcelona; the Paris Métro (which to her surprise does not smell that bad); French cities with fortified castles (her son is a fan of chivalry); Lisbon, Madrid; Berlin; Venice; Barcelona; Rome; Amsterdam. No, not Amsterdam, she says, instantly changing her mind – she’ll explain later. Which she does, in perhaps the play’s most moving, bittersweet and very French moments.
Paul, tired of life and of his career, at first demurs, but then accepts and proceeds to fulfill his tasks over the course of a year. Then he takes on, at Darius' request, an even more difficult, more challenging job – creating an imaginary scent that the son will try to discern. That unexpected scent evokes one of Darius’ favorite pursuits, and brings smiles to the audience. Then comes Amsterdam. And at the end, a plot surprise (no spoilers here) as we learn how the project has affected the lives of not only Darius (who never appears) but these two protagonists. All is portrayed touchingly and convincingly in both the words of the playwright and the voices and actions of the actors.
Patricot, a relative newcomer to the stage who is also a doctor of pharmacy, exhibits maturity in dialogue and character. Célarié is expert in creating the essence of a caring and creative mother, and Cassignard excels as a weary and suddenly committed genius. Célarié has been nominated for a Molière Award, Paris’ equivalent of the Tonys, as best actress of the year. Cassignard seems equally deserving.
The direction by Anne Bouvier is on target. The simple set, by Emmanuelle Roy, consists of a semicircular wooden desk that, when it rotates, reveals multiple bottles of scent. The appropriately dark and moody lighting is by Denis Koransky.
Sometimes acting transcends language. If your French isn’t sufficient, read the play in English before you go. It’s worth seeing these performers as masters of their craft. (The play is presented Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings at the 386-seat theater through June 25.)
About smell, Proust had it right. There are 10 million neurons in the part of the brain that governs smell. That area is near the sections that control memory and emotion. And this entire evening has about it the sweet smell of success.
Théâtre des Mathurins
36 Rue des Mathurins