Twenty-five years ago, a new company emerged on the Bay Area theater scene with a production of “Dear Master” by Berkeley author Dorothy Bryant. The two-character play, which dramatized the artistic friendship between 19th century French novelists George Sand and Gustave Flaubert, was an instant hit, and the Aurora Theatre Company was born.
That production, directed by Richard Rossi and starring Barbara Oliver and Ken Grantham, was staged in the tiny Berkeley City Club.
Today, Aurora occupies a more accommodating space on Addison Street. Oliver, the company’s founding artistic director, died in 2013, but the Aurora is thriving; it opened its 25th season Thursday with a splendid revival of “Dear Master.”
Bryant’s two-character play covers 13 years in letters between Sand and Flaubert. It’s a compelling relationship.
Nearly 20 years his senior, Sand — whom he addresses as “Dear Master” — is Flaubert’s friend, mentor and ardent supporter. As they discuss politics, gender, religion, war, and — most importantly — their work as two of France’s best-known authors, their personalities come into sharp relief.
Sand, whose affair with Chopin had already scandalized 19th century France, is a passionate feminist who believes in love, family and marriage.
Flaubert, a confirmed bachelor, is moody, irascible and outraged when the critics scorn his work.
She writes two novels a year; he takes five or six years to complete one.
He muses on his first love; she lays out her reasons for dressing in men’s clothing.
Affectionate, articulate, they reveal their inner lives with wry humor. The bond becomes increasingly poignant as they age, face losses, and confront their professional legacies.
On opening night, with Bryant in attendance, Joy Carlin’s intimate production, staged on Annie Smart’s warm parlor set with fine period costumes by Anna R. Oliver and atmospheric lighting by Kent Dorsey, put the script across with clarity.
The performances were still a work in progress. Michael Ray Wisely’s robust characterization of Flaubert hit the mark most consistently; a scene in which he reflects on the Prussian invasion of France in the 1870s and predicts wars to come over the next century was especially affecting.
Kimberly King’s Sand emphasized kindness, occasionally at the cost of fire. Her line readings never quite erased memories of Oliver’s fierce assumption in the original production.
Still, “Dear Master” remains a fascinating play filled with historical detail and insight. This engaging revival is a tribute to Bryant’s writing, and to Oliver’s legacy — and a strong start to Aurora’s season.
Presented by Aurora Theatre Company
Where: 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 2
Tickets: $32 to $65
Contact: (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org