In theatre, if timing is everything then tone can’t be far behind. For what’s the use of utilizing pulse, rhythm and pause if the timbre is off or the accents are too strident: the meaning is found but the subtext is lost.
And that’s the problem with The Autumn Garden—it looks better than it sounds and reads deeper than it translates to the stage.
Director Martha Henry has assembled a generally able cast (Patricia Hamilton, the cream of the crop, is the worldly dowager Mary Ellis “One should have power or give it over.”) and more than competent production staff (William Schmuck’s Louisiana guesthouse exudes tasteful hospitality even if the wicker-chair placement battle fails to draw the late-inning laugh) and Lillian Hellman’s script—regardless of how many “Dashes” (Dashiell Hammett was her decades-long companion and sometime editor) of assistance it contains is savvy and smart. But the production never quite lifts off, failing to reach the collective skill-sets and abilities of those engaged in sharing the playwright’s astute read of the human experience: As the lecherous portrait-painter Nick (Peter Hutt, more of an ugly drunk than a forgivable one) opines to his frequently betrayed wife Nina (Laurie Paton, appropriately steady under fire) “If you didn’t see through me so fast, you wouldn’t dislike yourself so much.”
Disappointingly, the soundscape and the scripted musical interventions did little to help the cause. The Dixieland and Blues act openings and scene padding were most welcome—how better to reinforce the time and place. Unfortunately, many parts of the proceedings were accompanied by a cricket convention gone amuck and a “related-hits” soundtrack that either reduced the success rate of hearing the lines or collided with the actual 78s that were called for. Then the Act Two “Is it Mozart or Haydn?” duel between the long-ago lover Nick and the still unmarried Constance (Sharry Flett) might have well as been by Salieri for the point it lost rather than the effect that should have had more than the critics twittering.
The rest of the men seemed more puzzled than perplexed with their lot in life. As General Benjamin Griggs, David Schurmann delivered his lines more like a matinée tenor than a battle-weary bass-baritone who knows how to give orders or carry a secret to the grave. Consequently, his relationship to his wife Rose (Wendy Thatcher, not quite far enough over the cuckoo’s nest) and their pending divorce (“… all professional soldiers marry, Rose.”) seems more of a relief than a calamity.
Mary Ellis’ grandson, Frederick, provides contrast to the standard relationships around him in the close-quarters of country living. For he puts the editing of his never-seen companion’s third novel (the first two being in the remainder bin) ahead of the needs and wants of his stoic fiancée Sophie (Charlotte Gowdy whose French accent grates, detracting from her considerable acting prowess). Tellingly, the “love that dare not speak its name,” remains mute, but not before everyone—including the confused lad—realizes that the failed author’s primary attraction to Frederick is his bank book (size envy of a different sort). To console himself, Frederick decides to cruise anyway, but this time on a ship with Mommy Dearest (Goldie Semple). Unfazed, Sophie turns a trick of her own and gets the cash to return home to Europe.
Like Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony, the players retire one by one from their week in the country leaving only Constance and her alcoholic admirer Edward Crossman (Jim Mezon proves the exception to the rule by imbibing his role with vigour, brilliant understatement and the epitome of purposeful self-destruction that peppers the script). But unlike Papa Haydn who penned his notes to convince the Prince that a holiday was long overdo, Hellmann’s last phrases speak a truth that few want to ever acknowledge, much less act upon.
Still, a trip to The Autumn Garden is recommended. Quibbling aside, this production—like the countryside around it—can’t help but grow over the summer and yield a magnificent emotional harvest by fall. JWR