Since her suicide at the age of 30, famed poet and novelist Sylvia Plath has become known as one of the most tragic and mysterious figures in the American literary canon. Now, the events leading up to that tragic day in 1963 are being brought to life at Hollywood’s Greenway Theater, with the latest production of Paul Alexander’s acclaimed one-woman show, “The Edge.”
Adeptly directed by Wilson Milam, the play stars Angelica Page as the tortured Plath, recounting the writers’ melancholic, lyrical descent into depression and madness while confined to a starkly deconstructed version of the London flat wherein she ultimately would take her life. Coming off a Tony-Nominated Broadway run of Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man,” Page clearly has the theatrical chops to pull off a role of this grave magnitude. Though she doesn’t much resemble her subject physically, Page successfully realizes the poet’s naturally theatrical mid-Atlantic patter, which brings Plath to life just as believably as if she were her doppelganger.
Weaving a tangled web of experience, Page’s Plath careens through her personal history in a desperate attempt to explain the circumstances which led to her ruin. Raised under the thumb of a despotic German father and a distant Austrian mother, Plath recalls an unhappy childhood devoid of parental tenderness and filled with harsh criticism. Ate age eight, Plath lost her father to diabetes, and first became lost in the wilderness of depression. Though she was a gifted student, Plath was burdened with a crippling, almost pathological fear of failure which caused her much anxiety. By the time she reached college age, Plath had already (half-heartedly) tried to take her life once, resulting in numerous courses of shock therapy treatment. Further emboldened by these primitive measures, Plath attempted suicide in earnest, taking a handful of sleeping pills while hiding under a crawlspace. Needless to say, she survived.
Despite her tumultuous personal life, Plath was already being hailed as a gifted writers when she graduated Smith College in 1954. A year later, she was granted a Fulbright Grant by the U.S. government, and sent to the highly prestigious Cambridge University to write. There, she met poet Ted Hughes and immediately became infatuated with the tall, ominous man. What followed was an incredibly tempestuous and fiery romance which, in the flesh, straddled the line between sado-masochistic fetishism and outright abuse, and in the spirit constituted nothing less than an emotional war to the death.
Indeed, Plath as written by Mr. Alexander accuses Hughes outright of murdering her (not literally of course) through his dalliances and domineering behavior. Though this makes for compelling drama, and boy does it ever, it is far from the historically accepted account of Plath’s life and death. Hughes has been accused of abuse, but those claims have never truly been corroborated, which can’t help but make “Edge” feel like a hatchet piece at times. That being said, it’s a fiercely captivating one: dextrous, buoyant, and full of charm. Though the dialogue can veer towards the melodramatic, so too could Plath’s own thoughts, making it perfectly acceptable to go a bit purple with the prose.
Page, all righteous bluster, does an admirable job one milking the viewer of empathy for the unfairly wronged Plath, while simultaneously wringing every last drop of hatred for the evil, devilish Hughes. She has a potent physicality which, when paired with her gift for cadence and delivery, makes what, in a lesser actor’s hands feel like an evening of dour complaints instead play at times like a brilliantly biting stand-up special. However, as an admirer of Plath’s work, I couldn’t help but feel that there was more of a subtle reticence to the woman than is portrayed here—a retiring, weary quality which is a bit lost in Page’s powerhouse turn.
Indeed, I believe Plath’s suicide was not entirely the product of romantic intrigue and by-the-numbers childhood trauma. Instead, I think Plath took her life because she was all too aware of profound existential truths which haunt all thinking peoples of this small world. While “Edge” would have us believe that Plath was a victim of her own fierce drive for greatness, I myself would argue that the root of Plath’s misery was in fact her crushing realization that greatness could never truly be achieved—not by her, not by anyone. But, of course, nihilism doesn’t make for strong human drama, so certain liberties must be allowed for in the name of good theater.