While it probably isn’t quite accurate to say that performer Salome Jens saved my life, I prefer to believe that it’s true. After an evening and morning of obliterative obsession, attending her one-woman show about Anne Sexton didn’t seem like the most propitious choice under the circumstances, but I already had purchased my ticket.
Yet, to the contrary, Ms. Jens’s embrace of Sexton’s poetry was so generous and convincingly compassionate that the experience was literally life-affirming. So perhaps I might be indulged in undying appreciation for her artistry.
Despite a dozen early New York theater credits (including Elia Kazan’s inaugural production at Lincoln Center of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall), Jens has largely bestowed her talents upon Los Angeles, most recently in an impressive turn in Donald Freed’s Tomorrow. Her television career has been substantial, although apart from her early starring role in the enduring Angel Baby, her movie roles have regrettably not been commensurate with her range and prowess.
As a solo turn, Blonde Poison couldn’t comprise a greater contrast to …About Anne. This U.S. premiere of a play by Gail Louw is based on the life of a notorious Jewish Gestapo informant in Berlin throughout the war, Stella Goldschlag, who barely managed to escape with her life. Under Jules Aaron’s direction, Jens manages to incarnate a monster while making her inescapably human: vain, terrorized, indomitable despite intolerable peril.
Conscience and morality collapse under an unimaginable stress that Louw, Jens and Aaron convey most convincingly. Their great coup is that the audience is never encouraged to sympathize, yet we are enticed into empathizing nevertheless. To save her parents and herself, at every turn she seizes the only choices available to her.
Without diluting Stella’s profound and deadly ethical failings, and despite her resolute refusal to accept responsibility or guilt, the play provides a potent illustration of the precept to judge not. That requires a toughness of viewpoint and a refusal to indulge an audience’s innate complacency about our own courage. Stella may be the embodiment of a coward, even as she musters up extraordinary reserves of strength and resourcefulness in her atavistic drive to survive.
Even so, the limitations of the solo format do keep the emotional dynamics firmly within the mechanics of a performer’s vehicle. Particularly in the earlier going, the acting must navigate some bumpy fits and starts as the text demands a rigid reliance on the contrivances of soliloquizing. Jens is as dab a hand as any at these shifts of gear, and when the narrative settles into what is more or less sustained storytelling, her consummate skill in spinning a yarn sustains a transfixing campfire intimacy that mesmerizes with both horror and a sense of inescapable degradation. No salvation offered here, only the stubbornness born of ineradicable trauma.