by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & or a dozen years, a wealthy matron in New York City, convinced that she had a voice suited for opera when she really didn't, hired herself an accompanist and rented ballrooms and concert halls so she could deliver recitals. In the 1930s and '40s, Florence Foster Jenkins became the must-see, hee-hee laughingstock of New York.

Stephen Temperley's play about Mrs. Jenkins, Souvenir (at Actors Rep through Dec. 8), however, offers more than just a freak show. By detailing Cosm & eacute; McMoon's reasons for agreeing to act as Madame J's accompanist in the first place -- and then staying with her for 12 ear-shattering years -- Temperley sketches the reasons that any of us might develop compassion for anyone instead of simply laughing at them.

For the second production in a row at ARt, Karen Nelsen plays a woman who's getting on in years and responding by floating deeply into denial. She conveys eccentricities and flightiness: Like a schoolgirl, she joins hands beneath her chin and implores her accompanist. But instead of frivolity, she convinces us that this poor, deluded, child-like woman has a rock-solid passion for the music that she thinks she's producing.

Cosm & eacute; often had to use reverse psychology on his patroness -- and by turning away from her, rubbing his hands together, raising up on tiptoe and heaving his entire body into a big breath so he can tell her another whopper, Mark Rabe is effective. Moving delicately, he suggests in one sequence that using a microphone would only diminish Mrs. Jenkins' natural gift. But Nelsen, saying she had no idea that Cosm & eacute; felt so protective of her, undercuts the moment by moving away from him. It's a tender moment, yet Nelsen plays it for eccentricity -- a point that's already been made about her character and in buckets -- rather than showing us a new facet.

Director Michael Weaver's production isn't yet so finely tuned that playgoers always knew where the laughter stopped and the humanizing began. Still, there's a wonderful scene just before intermission, where Cosm & eacute; wonders the same thing as the audience: How can Madame J not realize that people are laughing at her? Is she insane, or just stupid, or totally in denial? How can this woman not know?

After having worked so hard to minimize her exposure to all the inevitable ridicule, Cosm & eacute; finally blows up and calls her a "silly woman." And she's hurt -- in Nelsen's performance you can see it, that the super-confidence of this daft woman is actually capable of being shattered.

But this duo had developed a mutually protective relationship. She's his patroness and encourager; he's the one who tries to make her sound (without her knowing it) less awful than she really is. These two people, in other words, need to reconcile, and Rabe does it beautifully by singing "Crazy Rhythm" -- a song about loss -- in a conciliatory way. Its words become a motif in

Temperley's play:

Crazy rhythm, here's the doorway / I'll go my way, you'll go your way / I'm too high-hat, you're too low-down / Crazy rhythm, here's goodbye to you!

He realizes how different the two of them are, in other words, and doesn't care. Rabe's often good as a reactive actor, underlining the awfulness of Mrs. Jenkins' hair-raising falsetto: the open mouth, the raised eyebrows. When he's not sure quite how to distort the truth this time, he'll chew his knuckles; when she makes some particularly egregious pronouncement, his head pops up from behind the musical score like a prairie dog's.

But in two scenes when Cosm & eacute;'s aghast over Madame J's selection of larger and more hallowed halls for her travesties of operatic recitals, Rabe overdoes the surprise and anguish; better to trust the script's straightforward presentation.

Mrs. Jenkins sure liked to dress up, in real life and onstage, and costume designer Jessica Ray obliges with a dozen get-ups that range from the impressive (teal suit with flowing furs) to the outlandish (for the big recital, an "Angel of Inspiration" costume).

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & e all have a bit of Florence Foster Jenkins in us: capable of dreaming big and likely to fall short. The ideal isn't much more in our grasp than it was in hers.

That single-minded pursuit of excellence we'd like to claim? She never made any excuses. That little voice of self-doubt, way back in our brains, ready to pounce whenever we try something challenging? She figured out a way, unlike most of us, to shut it out entirely. Dismiss her lack of self-knowledge as denial all you want; Jenkins knew how to forge a direct connection to her ideals. As Cosm & eacute; says, she was one of the most satisfied people he knew.

This Actors Rep production will leave viewers similarly satisfied. It isn't ideal, but it's thought-provoking. Best of all, it prods our compassion where we thought all we had to do was laugh.

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