Though obviously best known for their productions of the Bard's work, Austin Shakespeare regularly dips into more modern fare that has fallen into the realm of "classics" of the stage. Such is the case with their latest production, a mounting of Tom Stoppard's 1995 play "Indian Ink.” The show runs through March 3 in the Long Center’s Rollins Theater.
Like much of Stoppard's work, "Indian Ink" delights in playing with stage conventions, riding the line between comedy and drama, past and present, truth and lies, etc. In this case, the play’s present day — 1980s England — flows freely back and forth with its past as Stoppard slowly reveals the story of English poet Flora Crewe’s journey to India in 1930. In the past we see Flora’s growing friendship with painter Nirad Das and her interactions with several representatives of the British government in India, while in the present we learn more about Flora from her sister, Eleanor, and the two men who have come to her for knowledge — biographer Eldon Cross and Nirad’s son, Anish.
As always in a Stoppard play, the language in “Indian Ink” is front and center, with beautiful poetic monologues and exchanges from both Flora and Nirad as well as various linguistic misunderstandings (particularly among the present-day characters) that are at turns humorous and affecting. With great nuance the playwright is able to delve into the emotional and psychological lives of his characters even as they debate the politics of British imperialism in India. Though the topic may not be foremost on the minds of an American audience, the complexities of the ways in which the characters debate the issue feel timely and relevant to our own argumentative era.
Of course, none of this nuance would be possible without a sensitive director and a top-notch cast. Ann Ciccolella is masterful at weaving the transitions between past and present and allowing them to haunt one another throughout the play, while still maintaining a focus primarily on her actors and the words of the text.
As Flora, Jill Blackwood’s mastery of Stoppard’s cadence is pitch-perfect. She provides a tour-de-force performance full of romance, sensuality and effervescent wit, matched by Tamil Periasamy’s Nirad, whose nervous energy and complimentary demeanor slowly give way to a deep reservoir of strength and poetry. As Eleanor, Babs George weds nostalgia to problematic pride in her memories of her sister, serving as an ongoing foil to the search for knowledge from Sanjay Rao’s emotional, artistic Anish and Colum Parke Morgan’s comically obsessed Eldon.
With its focus on character, language and mood, Austin Shakespeare’s “Indian Ink” is an exercise in restrained elegance that marries politics with romance in surprisingly moving ways.
Correction: An earlier version of this review misspelled the name of the character Nirad Das, as well as that of the character Anish in one reference.