A superb bottle of wine in a script can suggest a character’s refined taste. A stuffed quail onstage may evoke the superiority of French cuisine. But in Karin Coonrod’s production of Babette’s Feast, up this week at the Theatre at St. Clement’s on New York’s W 46th St., the food itself isn’t the point. In a town stymied by its own strictness in religious observance, a refugee with culinary skills is an agent of grace.
Written by Rose Courtney and developed by Abigail Killeen, Babette’s Feast will recall the 1987 film and the 1950 short story by Isak Dinesen, the source text for this production. Michelle Hurst, recently celebrated for her role as Miss Claudette in Orange is the New Black, plays Babette, a French widow (and former chef) fleeing violence in 1871 Paris and seeking shelter in the isolated town of Berlevåg, Norway.
Berlevåg, Coonrod notes, is “the most northern outpost of the continent of Europe in the arctic circle.” The town’s geographic extremity matches its denizens’ extreme piety: They reject the earthly pleasures of fine clothing (the cast members wear dark clothing and modest caps to cover the head) and rich food (think bread-and-ale soup). Villagers even ration out their grudges: two women subsist on the same squabble for forty years, as if multiple points of disagreement would smack of decadence. The people of Berlevåg feast on restraint.
Years later, the town’s minister dies, and down the sanctuary steps of St. Clement’s (past the audience) descends a black cloak: Babette. The choreographed foot-stomp of the whole cast amplifies her knock on the sisters’ door, suggesting an upheaval to this tidy ecosystem. The outsider comes with only the fragile endorsement of a letter, written by a former suitor of the town minister’s daughter, begging them to shelter Babette and employ her as a housekeeper. Though nervous about her past, the town welcomes her.
After more than a decade in her adopted Norway, the perpetual stranger unexpectedly wins the French lottery. Her one request of the minister’s daughters is that she might cook, and pay for, a grand dinner for the sisters and guests: not their ascetic bread-and-ale soup, but a real French meal. A long table moves to the center of the stage. Babette consults her cookbooks. The sisters worry they are making room for a “witch’s sabbath.”
But when the feast is ready, anxious Puritans staring at their plates gradually become human beings connecting in the candlelight. An outsider’s gift transforms them.
Until Babette’s arrival, actors busily create the world of Berlevåg with their bodies: they churn and coil and shuffle and stomp and stand ramrod straight. The feast scene, the first with chairs, invites them to sit, and we witness the people of Berlevåg physically relieved of religious hypervigilance. Townspeople who have bickered for decades tell stories and reconcile. The meal restores them, body and soul. A refugee has offered refuge.
Babette looks on, satisfied in her art, while dinner guests describe the harmony at the table to the audience: “They tasted an hour of the millennium,” they refrain, referring to the divine wedding banquet where God restores humanity to Godself. Rather than setting Babette’s culinary art and the villagers’ religious commitments in conflict, as if the ambitions of the spirit now succumb to the desires of the flesh, the play links the townspeople’s devotion and Babette’s art as necessary companions. An appreciation for her art points to a deeper hunger for the abundant love of God. They are more alive for receiving the gift, and Babette is the more beautiful for being allowed her generosity. Babette’s status as a lifelong stranger sharpens the generosity of her gift, and expands the villagers’ ideas about the character of holiness.
Now full, the guests eventually stumble outside to dance in the snow under the staggering beauty of the aurora borealis, which flickers across the ceiling of the stage at St. Clement’s. Witnessing the feast and watching the play, we too might be “stricken with a deeper understanding of what our lives might be” and shaken loose from fear. Rather than divided by traditions and origins, we might imagine being gathered up by grace, cared for by a lavish God, dizzied with laughter and wonder. We might look at the strangers in our own midst, the refugees waiting to bless and be blessed — waiting to make us strangers to our former selves. We might hear a knock and open the door.
Babette’s Feast opened March 25, 2018 at the Theatre at St Clement’s, 423 W. 46th St, Midtown West, New York City. The show is in an open run.