Everything seems to become at once deeper and lighter from the moment you sit down in the Theatre at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church for the off-Broadway production of Babette’s Feast. Originally a short story first published in English in Ladies’ Home Journal, it’s the story of a Christian community in Berlevag, Norway – “the most northern outpost of the continent of Europe in the arctic circle . . . at the edge of space and time (summer’s nights are white and winter’s nights are black),” as the director’s note describes it. Through the arrival of a stranger whose exemplary cooking skills make for the culminating feast, the story raises the deepest questions about what constitutes human happiness. Also implicated is a whole host of issues that make their way into the most contentious politics — most obviously immigration. In Babette’s Feast, welcome is not only of mutual benefit but a road to peace, resilience, and eternity.
On a recent Wednesday night, during a “talk back” after the show, one of the actors sketched the outline of a living, breathing process that allowed the words in this particular production to take on a life of their own, with striking simplicity. During the discussion, director Karin Coonrod nodded with joy at the recognition of a reality she had just watched before her eyes, and not for the first time: “The word was made flesh” on stage.
One of the actresses, Abigail Killeen, referred to each performance as a mountain climb, and “it’s a very important mountain to climb.” She had procured the stage rights to the Isak Dinesen short story a decade ago in the hopes of getting to this point. She talked in terms of courage, and you could see in her body language even after the show ended the life-giving nature of the production. In a world where overwhelming noise and frenetic images — some of them quite miserable — seem to drown the soul, there is breathing room in Babette’s Feast. It also happens to be (in keeping with what you might expect from the title) cultural nourishment for the soul.
The mountain Killeen talked about is, of course, life — which can be so sterile, so numbing, so completely without grace, if we let it. Especially in a city where daily commutes can barely leave time for what we most crave: family and leisure and processing and prayer, never mind exploration and wonder and even creation. Babette’s Feast, on the other hand, mercifully, is all about grace.
Wrapped in resplendent generosity, it’s a gift that feels undeserved and unexpected.
“We imagine grace to be finite,” it is said once or twice in the course of the play. And that keeps us from following our dreams. That keeps us from following even the lead of God, when we believe we might be hearing Him. It keeps us from courage. We may be good people, though we are not soaring the heights of freedom for which we were made. Throughout Babette’s Feast, with the townspeople’s strict asceticism pitched against the majesty of the Arctic expanse, there is an ever-present hope, even when “fear or scruples” weigh down the characters. Babette, the French woman who is welcomed into their lives, “appeared to be a beggar.” Instead, a narrator explains, she “turned out to be a conqueror.” Her generosity unlocks “passions,” “memories,” and “longings” that are rooted in the uniqueness of their Divinely created lives.
Babette’s Feast is unmistakably an invitation to a foretaste of Heaven. Wrapped in resplendent generosity, it’s a gift that feels undeserved and unexpected. It unleashes so much expectation, far beyond anything the human mind could communicate during the daily grind. And while it has its own exotic elements, its ingredients aren’t so much the food as a flourishing that is served up with amazing care and excellence. Fellowship invites a bubbling up of all the gifts of each man and woman around the table — and that is the true wonder of the feast.
The hymn “Love Divine All Loves Excelling” seems to come to life in a performance of Babette’s Feast. It promises more. It’s the Easter more. It’s, yes, some of the “joy of Heaven to earth come down,” an encounter with something like “unbounded love.” It reminds us that people trying to live virtuously can impart something beautiful and attract others to plausible joy.
As visitors leave part of their hearts in Berlevag, each relationship bears fruit as lives are dressed in virtue. There’s amazing grace in communion. Babette’s Feast draws each audience in to its living words of hope. It’s an enchantment that sends forth open-hearted souls to take delight in life and what’s beyond the veil, as what’s beyond the veil becomes thinner — and irresistible — at the feast.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.