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  • Duet for One 
  • Written by Tom Kempinski
  • Directed by Mark Schoenberg
  • Starring Faye Lavin and Christopher Kelk
  • At Tarragon Theatre in Toronto

Tom Kempinski's 1980 play Duet for One was originally a London hit (and a Broadway flop) and last year received a successful revival in the West End. Julie Andrews fans, however, will more likely remember its 1986 film version, in which the star of The Sound of Music gave one of her rare non-singing, dramatic performances, as a celebrated concert violinist suffering from multiple sclerosis.

At least, that's the version I was familiar with before I saw the new production by STAGE Toronto Theatre.

It turns out that Kempinksi's two-hander is a vintage specimen of therapeutic drama. This is a form that, while bearing little resemblance to real therapy (as therapists will quickly tell you), mines the rich dramatic potential for confession, revelation and catharsis inherent in what Freud called "the talking cure."

Duet for One is structured as six scenes, or sessions, in which the patient, MS-stricken violinist Stephanie Abrahams, goes from denial to grief to rage to the inevitable breakthrough. When we first meet her, the 33-year-old musician, as played by Faye Lavin, is as cool and composed as anyone can be in a clunky electric wheelchair. Smartly dressed, her hair a pre-Raphaelite cascade of blond curls, she speaks with chipper determination about her plans now that she can no longer play her instrument. She'll be a devoted wife to her avant-garde composer husband, she proclaims, and an inspiring teacher to her few select pupils.

Her psychiatrist, Dr. Feldmann (Christopher Kelk), is having none of it. He sees suicidal tendencies behind Stephanie's stiff upper lip and he's going to drag her back from the brink with a combination of anti-depressants and good old-fashioned Freudian analysis.

Kempinksi apparently based Stephanie on the brilliant British cellist Jacqueline du Pré, who was also afflicted in her prime by MS. When the play premiered in 1980, it must have been especially poignant, as du Pré was still alive and her concert performances still fresh in people's memories. Now, shorn of that reference, it's not especially moving. A disease like MS is devastating for any sufferer, not just an artist, and it's hard to empathize with rich-and-famous Stephanie's bitterness and self-pity.

The play's therapy conceit - complete with a doctor who becomes emotionally involved with his patient - has also become too familiar. Today, Stephanie's case could easily be just another segment in the HBO series In Treatment.

STAGE Toronto Theatre (an inelegant name that seems to have been chosen with an Internet search engine in mind) is a new company and this is its debut production. The artistic director, and director of the play, is veteran Mark Schoenberg, who co-founded and ran Edmonton's dynamic Theatre 3 in the 1970s. A Toronto acting teacher for many years now, he has staged Duet for One partly as a showcase for Lavin, one of his former students.

Lavin is clearly talented and if there's a reason to see this play, it's for her rough-edged but vital performance. Delivering her lines in a posh accent through gritted teeth, fidgeting with the arms of her wheelchair, she's like a fragile, vibrating vessel about to shatter. She skillfully takes her character from brittle poise to slatternly, obscenity-spewing self-loathing and reaches an affecting high point when, eyes glistening, she rhapsodizes about the ineffable magic of music. However, like a gifted but still technically unpolished violinist, she also hits her share of sour notes.

Kelk, as the avuncular, German-accented Feldmann, provides a solid bass line to counterpoint her solos, while acquitting himself admirably on the few occasions when he gets to step forward and riff. It turns out this psychiatrist is also a philosopher who can't resist pitching his own views on the meaning of life.

The show has been handsomely mounted on the main stage of the Tarragon Theatre, with a set and costumes by Stephen Degenstein that evoke the 1980s perfectly without drawing too much attention. Just the collection of vinyl LPs, cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes in the bookcases of the doctor's study are enough to take us back three decades.

If STAGE Toronto intends to make an impression, however, it might consider choosing plays that aren't as dated as that technology.

Duet for One runs until June 20.

Special to The Globe and Mail.