By Retta Blaney
Actress Abigail Killeen first heard of the 1988 Danish film Babette’s Feast during a sermon in lower Manhattan in the 1990s. Curious, she watched the movie and enjoyed it. “As a young woman in my 20s at the time, I thought it was beautiful but it didn’t pierce my heart the way age does for us.”
Fast forward to 2007, when the movie was the subject of a sermon at a different Manhattan church. This time Killeen learned that the film was based on a short story by Danish author Isak Dinesen. She read the story and grasped the message of “overwhelming and scandalous grace.” It changed her life.
For the last decade she has devoted herself to adapting the story for the stage. That mission will be fulfilled in January, when the theatrical production of Babette’s Feast has its world premiere at Portland Stage Company, Maine’s leading professional theatre.
“It’s a call that is strong,” she says. “It’s been my full-time, uncompensated job. My husband jokes that our third child is named Babette.”
Killeen, 42, spoke about her experience as the play’s conceiver and developer one morning in midtown Manhattan while in the city for the show’s casting. She was on sabbatical from her position as an associate theater professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.
“The story hit me in such a different way than the film. It’s such a work of beauty. I thought there’s more to mine with Babette being a political refugee. That could really get teased out. The film was so focused on the food and the preparation. We can’t do that onstage, so we’re free to examine the effects of the feast.”
In the story and film, Babette is a refugee from 19th-century revolutionary Paris. She has seen her husband and son killed, and she has participated in protests. A friend writes to two spinster sisters he knew years ago in Berlevåg, on the northeastern edge of Norway, and asks them to take Babette in. They do, and she becomes their housekeeper, living in the cold and dreary town with its austere religious residents.
After many years, Babette learns that she has won a large sum from a lottery ticket bought for her by a friend. Rather than return to Paris and live comfortably for the rest of her days, she spends the entire sum on importing rich foods and wines for a grand feast she spends days preparing for the townsfolk, who have spent their lives dining on salted cod and bread and ale soup.
In reading the story when she did, Killeen discerned a different focus from the movie she had seen years before. She collaborated with Rose Courtney, a theater colleague, to develop the script that incorporates much of Dinesen’s language. Courtney wrote the final script. The play is being helmed by Karin Coonrod, a New York-based experimental director.
The play’s development has been thorough, including a sold-out workshop production in New York and the support of New York Theatre Workshop, a major developer of new theatrical work.
“We’re in a different culture than when the film came out 30 years ago,” Killeen says. “We’re in the middle of the largest refugee crisis since World War II. This is a timely story. It’s classic, but the themes are vital for today.”
With that in mind, Killeen thought it was important to open the show in Portland, a refugee resettlement city. It also influenced her decision in casting the role of Babette.
“It’s part of paying attention to the moment,” Killeen said. “This is what a refugee looks like. Our casting has to reflect that. It’s not a statement but an honest way to tell the truth.”
The two other major roles will be the sisters. Killeen will play one, and the other will be played by Juliana Francis Kelly. They will be joined by six ensemble members. The show runs under 90 minutes with no intermission.
Because staging a play eight times a week with a vast array of food would be not only difficult but extremely expensive, Killeen has reimagined Babette’s offering.
“We’ll be communicating in movement and music,” she said. “There’s no food.”
Killeen quoted director Coonrod as saying that if people walk away thinking the feast was about food, the production will have failed.
“The feast is a banquet in a metaphorical sense,” Killeen said. “It’s a feast of equality. The diners don’t understand what they’re eating. Babette gives them an hour of the millennium, tasting the divine. God asks us to taste him and see that it is good. What comes upon them, they can only taste a fraction of and yet it keeps coming. The grace is that they don’t have to understand. They don’t have the words, but it’s showered on them in great abundance. That’s what we’re trying to get at with the feast.”
Gina Leishman has composed original music and Aretha Aoki is the dance consultant. The production will be minimally staged to reflect the ferocity of the rocky Norwegian landscape above the Arctic Circle. Two-time Tony winner Christopher Akerlind will be the scenic and lighting designer.
“The experience of the triune God happens in this tiny, isolated town through Babette, a complex figure, a mysterious stranger who actively participated in a violent uprising. She’s a woman who encompasses light and dark, and God uses her.”
And she is a refugee, and her story is being told in a city with a large population of African refugees. The production team, working with Portland’s Catholic Charities and Lindsay Sterling’s Immigrant Kitchens, will offer cooking classes in which the city’s refugees will teach locals to cook dishes from their country. Over three hours, they will prepare and eat the meals together.
“Theater provides a communal experience,” Killeen says. “It is as close to a feast as any translated art form could be. Cooking is an artistic act, and so is theatre. Fellowship in a meal is like a memory of a theatrical experience.”
Killeen’s hope is that the show will have an immediate transfer to Off-Broadway’s Theatre at St. Clement’s after it closes in Maine on Feb. 18. Julia Beardsley O’Brien is her producing partner in New York.
She dreams of taking the show to the Vatican, since learning from the Rev. Evan Pillsbury, rector of Light of Christ Anglican Church, that Pope Francis loves the film. She wrote two letters to Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley asking him to inform the pontiff of her production but she has received no reply.
Killeen has faced rejection because of the project. Many people told her she was crazy to pursue it, and still tell her that, just as they told the film’s director, Gabriel Axel, who fought for his project long before it won an Oscar.
“Even as people said no, it was always gracious and with great respect,” Killeen said. “It renewed my thought that we had something. I could let it reveal its path to me. I had to keep shepherding it.”
Retta Blaney is an award-winning journalist and the author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors.