Inspired Treatment of an Uninspired Play

BRITISH playwright David Hare (``Plenty,'' ``Knuckle,'' ``Pravda'') has an intense vision of his society; he sees it spiraling into decadent materialism, hypocrisy, and mendacity. Steppenwolf's production of Hare's ``The Secret Rapture'' (1988), which closed after a highly successful November run here, locates the source of the evil in Thacherite England as greedy self-interest - ``the love of money is the root of all evil.'' Linda Emond played Isobel, a modest woman maintaining a modestly successful design firm. After her father's death,Isobel is badgered by her family and her lover, against her own best instincts, i8nto expanding her firm. Her lover's complicity Isobel regards as betrayal and she abandons him - driving him rather unbelievably mad.

The acid wit of the first act, as Isobel resists the machinations of mammon, gives way in the second to dismal tragedy. The title refers to the moment when the saint is reunited with Christ, and it draws attention to the play's subtext - a secular idea of sainthood based in unselfish and long-suffering honesty.

It's an uneven piece of work. Sometimes motivations have to come from the actors because most of them aren't written into the play. Fortunately, the Steppenwolf cast was up to the mark, investing intricate interpretations of character into the beautifully written but poorly plotted drama. Linda Emond's passive Isobel, like the proverbial still waters, ran deep with feeling and layered ethical motives. But Rondi Reed as the villainous big sister built so acute a characterization that when her Marion sank into broken-hearted affection at the end of the play, the transformation sent the viewer out into the night inspired.

Patrick Clear played Marion's born-again husband with such precise wit, that by the end of the play we could not simply dismiss him - either for his ``sins'' against Isobel or for his own possible redemption. All of the acting was uniformly precise, intense, and layered. with intelligent feeling. The wonder is that an acting ensemble could produce an inspired performance with so uneven and limited a play as ``The Secret Rapture.''

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