Babette’s Feast is based on a 1987 Oscar-winning, Danish film directed by Gabriel Axel. The drama follows Martine (Abigail Killeen) and Philippa (Juliana Francis-Kelly) who live in a small village called Berlevåg. The beautiful girls have many suitors, but their father rejects them all. Martine is courted by a charming young Swedish cavalry officer, Lorens Löwenhielm (Jeorge Bennett Watson).
Philippa’s voice and manor win her the admiration of Achille Papin (Steven Skybell), a star baritone from the Paris opera on hiatus to the silence of the coast. Both sisters decide to stay with their father and reject love.
Thirty-five years later, Babette Hersant (Michelle Hurst) appears at their door. She carries a letter from Papin explaining that she is a refugee from counter-revolutionary bloodshed in Paris and recommends her as a housekeeper. The sisters cannot afford to take Babette in, but she offers to work for free. Babette serves as their cook for the next 14 years, producing an improved version of the bland meals typical of the abstemious nature of the congregation, and slowly gaining their respect. Her only link to her former life is a lottery ticket that a friend in Paris renews for her every year. One day, she wins the lottery of 10,000 francs. Instead of using the money to return to Paris, Babette decides to spend it on preparing a feast for the pastor’s hundredth birthday. The meal is Babette’s act of self-sacrifice and unconditional love. Babette tells no one that she is spending her entire winnings on the meal.
The sisters accept both Babette’s meal and her offer to pay for the creation of a “real French dinner”. As the ingredients arrive, the sisters begin to worry that the meal will become a sin of sensual luxury, if not some form of devilry. In a hasty conference, the sisters and the congregation agree to eat the meal, but to forgo speaking of any pleasure in it, and to make no mention of the food during the dinner.
Martine’s former suitor, Lorens – now a famous general married to a member of the Queen’s court – comes as the guest of his aunt and compares it to a meal he enjoyed years earlier at the famous Café Anglais in Paris. Although the other celebrants refuse to comment on the earthly pleasures of their meal, Babette’s gifts break down their distrust and superstitions, elevating them physically and spiritually. Old wrongs are forgotten, ancient loves are rekindled, and a mystical redemption of the human spirit settles over the table.
The sisters assume that Babette will now return to Paris. However, when she tells them that all of her money is gone and that she is not going anywhere, the sisters are aghast. Babette then reveals that she was formerly the head chef of the Café Anglais and tells them that dinner for 12 there has a price of 10,000 francs. Martine tearfully says, “Now you will be poor the rest of your life”, to which Babette replies, “An artist is never poor.” Philippa then says, “But this is not the end, Babette. In Paradise, you will be the great artist God meant you to be” and then embraces her with tears in her eyes saying, “Oh, how you will enchant the angels!”, which is precisely how the play ends
Babette’s Feast was conceived and developed by writer Rose Courtney and director Karin Coonrod who have created a hypnotically transfixing production. Lighting designer Christopher Akerlind (Broadway’s Indecent), costume designer Oana Botez, and sound designer Kate Marvin leave the stage austere and stark, except for the table to feast upon. When the recipients go out into the snow, the piece becomes timeless and spiritual.
The cast also features Jo Mei, Elliot Nye, Steven Skybell, Sorab Wadia, Sturgis Warner and Jeorge Bennett Watson. This cast is exquisite in their workmanship and details, but it is Abigail Killeen and Michelle Hurst who steal the show. Ms. Killeen with her deep reserve and Ms. Hurst with her passionate stare and presence that makes Babette someone who knows the meaning of life.
This cast and director show how when a show commits to the work and allows the simplicity of communication to shine through, there is magic in theatre. Babette’s Feast shows us the banquet of life we all take for granted.
Babette’s Feast: Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 West 46th St. Monday, Wednesday & Thursday evenings at 7 pm, Friday & Saturday evenings at 8 pm, with matinees Saturday at 2 pm & Sunday at 3 pm.