The actors Torrey Hanson and Karen Janes Woditsch as Paul and Julia Child
As far as stage directions go, Doug Frew and Bill Brown have topped Shakespeare’s famous “Exit, pursued by a bear.” Toward the start of their new play, To Master the Art, opening October 30th at TimeLine Theatre, Julia Child enters, butchering a pigeon. And not, the script stipulates, in some haphazard whack-a-mole fashion either. As Child, the actor Karen Janes Woditsch must prepare the bird with the vigorous élan of the world’s most recognizable cook.
“I have absolutely no idea how to prepare pigeon,” says Woditsch. “But I’m not worried. It’s all in the book.”
The book would be Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the 1961 tome that made its author a culinary superstar. Embedded within the exhaustively researched rec-ipes, Bill Brown notes, Child included the recipe for the art of zestful living. Her famous exhortation “Bon appétit!” was as much about joie de vivre as it was joie de cuisine, and her optimistic outlook inspired several books as well as the movie Julie & Julia.
In keeping with Child’s passion for cooking, there will be few culinary shortcuts onstage. The pigeon is a prop, Frew explains, but the set will feature a working kitchen, in which audiences will be privy to Child’s triumphs (French onion soup) and early disasters (botching simple scrambled eggs). The production dates back to 2007, when the ensemble member Juliet Hart (who plays Child’s editor) found herself enthralled by the chef’s autobiography. “Her cooking revolution was shaped by being unafraid to live outside the boundaries of what was acceptable for women at the time,” Hart says. Brown brought his own enthusiasm for Child to the table. After her death in 2004, he’d organ-ized the Julia Club, a group that put on elaborate potlucks.
As central as food is in the story, Frew and Brown wanted to dig deeper. Poring over Child’s papers at Radcliffe, they found an unconventional romance and a narrative wherein food was a metaphor. “This is a love story for the ages,” says Frew. “Julia and Paul Child were inextricable.”
Brown adds: “Julia didn’t fall in love until her late 30s, didn’t find her calling until she was 40, didn’t publish her first book until she was 50. She is an inspiration for late bloomers. And for everybody else
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Photograph: Ryan Robinson