The nose of “Cyrano de Bergerac” is famously overlong and so, too, is his final scene at the Guthrie Theater.
But for the most part, this “Cyrano,” adapted from Edmond Rostand’s classic play and directed by Joseph Haj, captures the elements we want, especially in its fleet first half. The story is simple: Self-conscious Cyrano (Jay O. Sanders) loves bewitching Roxane (Jennie Greenberry), as does tongue-tied Christian (Robert Lenzi). Not knowing he has a rival, Christian asks Cyrano to create poetry to help woo Roxane. It works. So Roxane pledges her heart to Christian, only to discover years later that it was always Cyrano’s beautiful soul she loved.
The play asks big questions about the nature of love (if you can’t have both, is it better to love or be loved?), friendship (might loyal friendship be deeper and more satisfying than romance?) and bravery (who’s the bigger fool: Christian, who is not afraid to tell Roxane how he feels but doesn’t have the words, or Cyrano, who has them but fears using them?).
Those questions are the best thing about this thoughtful, droll production. They’re woven into the material so deftly that I found myself debating them long after the play ended. I also wondered whether the overstuffed qualities of “Cyrano” — a romance and a comedy and a tragedy and a war drama and a swashbuckler — were just Rostand tricking out his play in an effort to visualize how tricky love is.
All of that might lead to a serious case of cognitive dissonance but, ingeniously, the more complicated “Cyrano” gets, the less complicated this production is. Which makes sense: If romance is, in part, about figuring out when to conceal and when to reveal, so, too, is the art of theater.
Scenic designer McKay Coble’s enormous curio cabinet, beautifully decorated with roses and other flourishes by the theater’s crack scene shop, greets us as we enter the theater. Throughout the play, its drawers and cabinets are pulled out, becoming pieces of furniture and props that are discarded once they’re used. By the end of the production, when war has taken its toll and two characters are left to find truth, the stage is bare. With the many elements of the plot and all the artifice of Coble’s clever set behind them, all they have left is love.
Sanders struggled a bit with his lines on opening night (the part is ginormous) and is the one who must try to sustain the drawn-out final act, but he expertly captures both the lightness of Cyrano’s wit and the gravity of his soul. Greenberry is an ideal Roxane: tenderhearted, funny and bright. Haj has kept the anons and ’tises of the 19th century but directed the actors (including Charity Jones and Ansa Akyea, both bringing depth to comic roles) to speak them almost as if the play takes place in the present. The result is a production that reminds us that love — and friendship — have never been easy, and that’s why we fight for them.