By Susan Glaspell
Directed by Sam Walters
Venue: Orange Tree Theatre
Date: Saturday 19th October 2013
Not the best Susan Glaspell play we’ve seen here (like you can see them anywhere else?) but the cast were superb, and although the writing wasn’t so strong and the audience a bit unresponsive, we enjoyed our afternoon.
The set was nicely detailed with a strong Art Deco theme. There was a large central white carpet with a pattern of wiggly lines, a large dining table on the far right side with two matching chairs, a pair of armchairs further round on the far left side with a reproduction coffee table in front of them, a round telephone table with an upright chair on the left side and another comfy chair with a footstool in the doorway corner. The corner opposite the door had a window with curtains, a seat ledge below it and books stashed underneath. It took me a while to spot, but there was also a curved seat in the left corner, partly hidden by the seats and their occupants, and a standard lamp on the wall behind that. A carpet runner covered the steps and continued off stage. I couldn’t see anything on the upper levels. We were sitting by the right hand corner.
The play’s opening scene was a bit confusing, and from the comments I heard after the show, we weren’t the only ones to find it that way; I quite enjoy having information thrown at us which we can’t make sense of for a little while, but this was excessive. It was 1943 in New York State, and a young man, dressed in scruffy overalls and carrying a doctor’s bag, had been called to the Higgenbothem house to check up on someone. During his conversation with Mrs Higgenbothem (we presumed) it emerged that there was a young woman upstairs whose presence was of concern to several people, and that Mr Higgenbothem was also upstairs with some unspecified complaint. Lots of names were bandied about and Mrs Higgenbothem (first name Margaret, played by Julia Hills) seemed to think the problematic situation was inexplicable to anyone outside of the family. Sadly, this seemed to be true, until we started to meet some of the people she’d been naming.
These included her husband Owen (Stuart Fox), who was bad tempered and rude, and having written some books about the state of the world some years before, he was now taking the flak for the choices other people had made after reading one of his books. This became a running gag, and was quite funny. His first wife Harry (Miranda Foster) also turned up, and his later description of her as a kitten was very apt; soft, sweet and cuddly but don’t let her get those claws into you. She was also self-centred and rather dim, and her arrival at the house was due to her current husband Stuart having run off with a young woman, the very young woman who was lurking about upstairs. When that young lady came downstairs we discovered that her name was Dottie (Lydia Larson), and that was about all we learned for a long time. Her reason for eloping with Stuart wasn’t made clear until the final scene. Meanwhile Bill (Antony Eden), the doctor in dungarees, was quite smitten by her, although their relationship was anything but smooth.
The humour really started to get going when Stuart (David Antrobus) turned up. At this point, Owen and Harry were standing right in front of us, and Harry was doing her best to re-seduce Owen. He (Owen) wasn’t entirely against the idea, although for him it was more of an enjoyable interlude. From our position we could see another man arrive, spot the other two and sit down on the corner seat, watching what happened between the two of them. Naturally Harry made some comments about her husband, and his reactions were good fun to watch, whether Harry was praising him or criticising. It became even funnier when Margaret, Owen’s current wife, came and joined Stuart on the seat.
Eventually it was broken up, I think by Bill, and Dottie also came down to join the family conference. Without much in the way of explanation, Stuart and Dottie ran off again, leaving Bill exasperated with the older generation who had done nothing to stop it. When he tried to explain this to Dottie’s father – who was only present via the telephone – he complained that his seniors were a bunch of windbags, but when Dottie’s father asked what he, Bill, had been doing when Dottie and Stuart had made their escape, he had to admit that he had been talking at great length himself. It was a very funny moment which passed without much response from the audience.
There was also a cleaning lady, Mrs Soames (Auriol Smith), whose son was fighting in the Pacific against the Japanese. She represented the ordinary point of view, and often cut through the airy-fairy ideas of the others which was good fun. The final character entered immediately after Mrs Soames had been encouraged to describe her son in detail so that the others could imagine him in the room, and his appearance just at that moment created quite a stir. The new arrival was actually Harold (Jeremy Lloyd), Owen and Harry’s son, known to them as Jumbo, and he had come back to tell his parents that he’d joined the army. They had previously been told that he’d claimed to be a conscientious objector, as had Dottie, and this was her reason for running off with Stuart; with petrol being rationed, she’d had to find a man with a car and plenty of petrol to help her find Harold. No sexual connection had been intended; in fact, Stuart was hugely amused when he realised what his friends and wife had been thinking. Harold didn’t actually mention to his parents that he’d enlisted until the end of the scene, so there was a lot of fun to be had with everyone talking at cross-purposes.
The final scene unravelled all of this, as well as allowing Harold to give a very good description of why someone who doesn’t want to kill anybody would actually choose to fight in a war. It was very moving, all the more so because we’d learned that Mrs Soames’ son, Freddie, had been captured by the Japanese. The play was then brought to a satisfactory conclusion, with everyone pretty much being reconciled to everyone else and Dottie and Bill finally acknowledging their attraction to one another.
We both felt there was more humour in the play than the audience seemed to be getting, and that may have reduced our enjoyment a little. The dialogue was also a bit strange at times, reminding me of the poetic cadences of Strange Interlude rather than a more realistic style. But overall we reckoned the main problem was that the play wasn’t staged in Susan Glaspell’s lifetime, so that she didn’t have a chance to tweak it. The confusion of the opening section would probably have been adjusted, and there were one or two lulls which could have been beefed up, as well as either dropping all mention of someone called Evelyn (I’ve no idea how she fitted in) or introducing her into the mix of characters at the house. The assertion by Stuart that his running off with Dottie was based on democratic principles (I assume he meant democratic instead of Democratic) seemed absurd, and while it was mildly amusing to us, largely due to David Antrobus’ performance, it might have been funnier in its original time and place. Even so, we were glad to have seen another Susan Glaspell play, especially as the Orange Tree do such good productions of her work.
© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me