Julia Child, from pummeled eggs to French cuisine

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(c) Lara Goetsch

Julia Child (Karen Janes Woditsch) learns the French way to "scramble" an egg from her instructor at Le Cordon Bleu (Terry Hamilton). 

Review: “To Master the Art”
Timeline Theatre, Chicago

You can almost smell the savory food being prepared in “To Master the Art,” William Brown and Doug Frew’s new play about the blossoming of that incomparable maîtresse de la cuisine, Julia Child.

Hey, wait a minute – you really can smell those shallots simmering in butter, just as Julia does in a revelatory moment at a little restaurant shortly after her arrival in France in 1948. That aroma holds promise of something delicious, and “To Master the Art” delivers.

In witty, touching fashion, playwrights Brown and Frew – abetted by Karen Janes Woditsch’s exuberant performance as Julia Child – have captured a kitchen-clueless woman’s discovery of food that became a passion, then an obsession that changed the way Americans thought about cooking.

Woditsch is delightful as the tall Californian who followed her husband Paul Child to France, where he was promoting American interests for the U.S. government, only to find herself idle and isolated by a language that baffled her.

But Julia McWilliams Child, who had worked in U.S. intelligence during the war, was not a woman to sit on the sidelines. And once she got the bug to learn how the French transfigured food into a magical experience, she went at it with a vengeance, pushing through Gallic prejudice against this Yankee interloper and even testing her devoted, indulgent husband Paul.

 In the end, after a decade of unstinting, meticulous labor came the fruit, Julia Child’s landmark tome “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” This charming, vivacious play tracks Child’s emergence from mangled eggs in her first days at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris to complex dishes that were models of the culinary art, absolument parfait!

Woditsch embodies Child – her high-pitched voice and direct, sometimes earthy manner – without creating a caricature. Her rhapsodic enthusiasm is palpable, her setbacks and frustrations real. Genuine as well is Woditsch’s unvarnished zeal for Paul, portrayed by Craig Spidle with a middle-aged lustiness and barely contained world-weariness.

In a chilling digression evoking that convulsive post-war era, Paul Child is summoned to Washington to be grilled by the House Un-American Activities Committee on suspicion of consorting with known communists. As Child’s loyalty is being questioned by a pair of over-determined inquisitors, Spidle reacts with an honest amazement, then outrage, that surely resonated in every soul in that very quiet little theater.

Playwright Brown also directs this production, moving it along with a light hand and sure sense of when to slow the action and dwell on the spirit of his subject, which is food no less than Child herself.

One illuminating set piece finds Julia in her first cooking class at Le Cordon Bleu with a group of ex-GIs presided over by a patiently enduring chef (played with twinkling affection by Terry Hamilton).  They’re making what we would call scrambled eggs. Who can’t do that? Hamilton’s philosophical chef answers: none of them. He then explains what it means to love cooking, to contemplate its elements – and how to crack and whip an egg properly. One can only wonder how many eggs Hamilton massacred in learning to crack the shell and pop out the contents with one hand. He does it so magnificently.

Indeed, an aura of authentic time and place pervades this lovely show. That authenticity has a physical center in the person of Jeannie Affelder, whose fluent French lends genuine style to not one but three different characters: the owner of the aforementioned restaurant, a street vendor of vegetables and Julia Child’s collaborator on the cook book, Simone Beck. In that last and largest role, the petite, winsome Affelder presents an irresistible foil to Woditsch’s imposing Julia.

Keith Pitts’ scenic design is a picture postcard of efficiency, readily adaptable as brasserie, kitchen or street scene. I happened to catch “To Master the Art” just after returning from two weeks in Paris. At the end, I yearned only for a bistro where I might order a slice of paté and raise a glass to Julia Child. And reflect upon the true meaning of “bon appétit.”

Through Dec. 19. www.timelinetheatre.com. Call (773) 281-8463.