RALEIGH — A play about an aging opera star teaching singers might seem dry and dull -- unless you're Terrence McNally, whose "Master Class" uses the premise as springboard for a multilayered overview of art, fame and love.
Playing diva Maria Callas, with her larger-than-life personality and legendary temperament, might seem overwhelmingly daunting -- unless you're Lynda Clark, whose electrifying embodiment of this punishing role at Theatre in the Park is not to be missed.
A script about Callas' life alone would be riveting, with her meteoric rise during the 1950s from war-torn poverty in Greece to glamorous stardom on the world's stages and fashion pages. Her decade-long affair with Aristotle Onassis left her heart and career in tatters when he dropped her for Jackie Kennedy in 1968.
Some of Callas' most notable appearances were in a series of master classes at New York's Juilliard School in 1971-72, where she captivated audiences with her uncompromising standards and astute insights. McNally sets his script at one of these sessions, displaying Callas' strict work ethic, but also her self-doubts and need for adulation.
He cleverly has students sing arias mirroring segments of Callas' life, pushing her into intense inner monologues about her fears, longings and regrets. McNally's genius makes it all engaging, even for those unfamiliar with opera's traditions, balancing pithy revelations on the nature of art with comic barbs from Callas and reactions from her students.
Clark's previous leading roles in "Macbeth," "The Lion in Winter" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" were but rehearsals for this all-encompassing part. She easily portrays the diva's vanity, imperiousness and fire, but it's in the character's vulnerable, lonely and bitter moments that Clark plumbs new depths.
Clark fearlessly rattles off Italian lyrics and even sings a number of phrases, masterfully demonstrating the commitment necessary to fulfill the composers' (and McNally's) intentions. She plays some of the comedy broadly but always with great timing.
Clark gets strong support from the performers playing students. Katherine Anderson gives Sophie appealing wide-eyed innocence and buoyant lyricism. Rozlyn Sorrell wows with Sharon's feisty determination and thrilling high notes. Antonio Delgadillo plays cocky tenor Tony with appropriate flair, but he must pressure his pleasant baritone into his aria's highest range.
As accompanist Dani, Julie A. Florin plays all the music authoritatively, while quietly battling Callas' constant belittlement. Christopher Coby gets laughs as a surly stagehand.
Clark is her own director, a normally inadvisable choice that succeeds here in a tightly confident staging. Stephen J. Larson's scenery, lighting and sound add immensely to the production's success. No theater fan should pass up the opportunity to witness this highly entertaining piece and Clark's personal triumph.