Two award-winning actresses are breathing life into David Hare’s stylishly written “The Breath of Life,” which finishes its two-week run at Gloucester Stage this weekend. In it, Nancy E. Carroll and Paula Plum engage in a verbal tour de force.

Two award-winning actresses are breathing life into David Hare’s stylishly written “The Breath of Life,” which finishes its two-week run at Gloucester Stage this weekend. On a stage made surprisingly large and deep by clever set design from Jenna McFarland Lord, Nancy E. Carroll and Paula Plum engage in a verbal tour de force.


Director Eric C. Engel has paced his leading ladies well. The taut timing adds to the play’s mounting tension as wife confronts mistress oh so many years later.


Both actresses are IRNE award winners. Carroll portrays the aging mistress as acerbic and a bit of a hermit, hiding out on the Isle of Wight in self-imposed isolation. Carroll employs a flat and sarcastic tone to great effect in creating the wary Madeleine Palmer, using nasty humor to fend off what she sees as a plan to get her to spill her guts for use in the wife’s next novel.


Carroll’s character is cynical about both America and England.


“The whole south of England — gardening and dying. That’s what we do,” says the mistress to the snoopy wife.


Plum creates the feminine wife Frances Beale, betrayed and seeking closure by confronting her husband’s mistress. She has come all the way to the Isle of Wight to do it. She tells the mistress she wants to write about their shared experience with her husband Martin.


“Our story — but not as fiction. I want to write a memoir,” says the wife.


Director Engel emphasizes the distance between these women by having them take turns sitting on a long curved window seat close to the audience, while the other sits on a sofa far in the background. Seen from the outside, with brick, sand and sea grass, the window seat creates a sensation of abundant space and distance.


“The real story is who you are — who you are underneath,” says the wife.


During the play the mistress reveals just a bit here and there, including the fact Martin said he came to America because he needed space, saying she met him in a lowlife bar in Alabama. Carrying her anger with pride, the mistress says it is “always there — angrier than ever.”


The wife tells the mistress, “I want something back. I deserve something back.”


During the evening, the skill of playwright David Hare, combined with the skill of these two actresses, draws the audience into the story they are telling. The characters don’t bond with each other, but some of the defenses come down, and they agree about Martin, who has already found someone new.


“Obviously, my dear, we both sold ourselves short,” says the mistress.


Plum builds a nice performance in act two with passion and anger, making an impassioned defense of the meaning of marriage and family.


“You always had the advantage, remember, because you always knew I existed,” says the wife.


The play hovers on the edge of deep anger at times, never letting it happen, so the tension remains. Audiences who appreciate fine dialogue performed at its best by expert actresses will want to catch the final weekend of this show.


Interested?


The remaining 8 p.m. performances for “The Breath of Life” are from Wednesday, July 29 through Saturday Aug. 2, with a 3 p.m. matinee on Aug. 1 and a 4 p.m. matinee on Aug. 2.


Ticket prices are $37 for adults, and $32 for senior citizens and students. At the Wednesday and Thursday 8 p.m. performances, Cape Ann residents with reservations and proof of residency pay half price: $18.50.


For reservations or more information, call the Gloucester Stage box office at 978-281-4433 or visit online at www.gloucesterstage.org.


Gloucester Stage is located at 267 East Main St. in Gloucester.