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As one might expect from a biographical one-woman show, the subject of Performance Network's Woman Before a Glass is interesting, successful, and famous in her own right. White-haired Peggy Guggenheim invites the audience into her mid-1960s Italian palazzo filled with her "children," a staggering collection of modern art assembled over a lifetime. In the play's expansive eighty minutes, actor Naz Edwards and director Malcolm Tulip delve into art and artists, politics and religion, and Peggy's private life and family.

What makes playwright Lanie Robertson's take on Peggy worth the visit is the character's scathing honesty, her abundant humor, and — yes, at least in part — her wealth. As "merely" a millionaire Guggenheim (small potatoes compared with most of her relatives), she attributes most of her success to herself, and to a large degree it's deserved; she may have started with a few million, but what she did with it stemmed from her own ingenuity and drive. The combination of gumption and bankroll allowed Peggy to cultivate a curious amalgamation of nuances: now firing words crisply into the phone with the savvy entrepreneurship of a self-made woman, now throwing about her coture wardrobe like an unimpressed debutante, now saucily dropping names of some of the most celebrated modern artists of the mid-twentieth century.

Edwards is up for Peggy's challenging range from dogged to cheeky to furious, her efforts masked by an easy delivery that feels like just talking. She boldly creates a character that one wouldn't necessarily want to befriend, but still earns plentiful goodwill and sympathy. Robertson dips a toe into salacious details, but the play is far from a tabloid tell-all — the character's many passions and joys are balanced by deeply felt disappointment and loss. The script is broken up into four scenes with well-defined arcs; the first two in particular build to a shimmering intensity, the pinnacle being a gripping remembrance of the Titanic disaster in which Peggy's father died. Effortless and breezy when alone, Edwards's interactions with unseen, unheard characters are conversely laid on pretty thick, fairly telegraphing a later plot reveal and stealing some of its thunder. Another small detractor is the actor's exacting vocal cadence, which on the one hand is a lovely complement to the character, but on the other appeared to trigger frequent trip-ups.

If you've ever wanted to live in a museum, might I direct you to one Monika Essen, whose uncrowded art-gallery set design is nevertheless an embarrassment of (replica) riches: even the furniture is art. The many works are brought into and out of focus by Mary Cole's pointed but gentle lighting; similarly, Suzi Regan's sound design adds a relatively light touch to supplement key moments. One of the few missteps was the costuming, also by Essen — of course, a dozen or more vintage designer gowns would overreach nearly any theater's budget, but several of these frocks are particularly taxing to one's suspension of disbelief.

Although this Woman Before a Glass is not flawless, the production offers a generous slice of culture and an even more captivating portrait of female independence. Edwards's strong performance basks in a daily existence nearly free of unwanted intrusions or expectations, although it makes her no safer from personal devastation. The duo of privilege and toil is handled with enough care that the viewer ultimately celebrates Peggy's uninhibited pursuit of exactly the life she wants.


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