by Lillian Hellman
The premise of the play is contemplating the meaning of middle age to an assorted group of people gathered together in a summer home. All of them are, in one way or another, frustrated and unhappy. Most of them are under the illusion that some day the things from which they suffer will be removed and they will be once more at peace. But when they come to see themselves, they realise that man is the sum of his past life, that they are incapable of any real revolt against their past and that what they have made of themselves in earlier years is what they are when age approaches. And yet they are not tragic figures. All of them are troubled average people, human, commonplace: but they are studied with great understanding and a touch of intelligently unsentimental compassion.
Directed by David Jones; sets by Thomas Lynch; costumes by Ilona Somogyi; lighting by David Weiner; sound by John Gromada; production stage manager, Matthew Silver; production manager, Michael Wade. Presented by the Williamstown Theater Festival, artistic director, Roger Rees; general manager, William Darger. In Williamstown, Mass
Cast: Rufus Collins (Edward Crossman), Elizabeth Franz (Mrs. Mary Ellis), Mamie Gummer (Sophie Tuckerman), Jessica Hecht (Nina Denery), John Benjamin Hickey (Nicholas Denery), Allison Janney (Constance Tuckerman), Brian Kerwin (Gen. Benjamin Griggs), Cynthia Mace (Carrie Ellis), Rama C. Marshall (Leon), Eric Murdoch (Frederick Ellis), Brooke Parks (Hilda) and Maryann Plunkett (Rose Griggs).
August 22, 2007
What They Left Undone on Summer Vacation
By BEN BRANTLEY
Most of the people in “The Autumn Garden,” Lillian Hellman’s 1951 drama of midlife malaise, have reached the age when, as W. H. Auden wrote, “mirrors might be hateful for a while.” The joy and pain of the Williamstown Theater Festival’s absorbing revival, which runs through Sunday, come from watching a top-drawer cast embody a growing, reluctant awareness of receding hair and chin lines matched by receding hopes.
This is acting without Botox, at least of the spiritual variety. Directed by David Jones, a finely balanced ensemble — including Jessica Hecht, John Benjamin Hickey, Maryann Plunkett and, in a welcome return to the stage, Allison Janney — puts aside personal vanity to portray people holding on by their fingernails to self-esteem and self-deception. The beauty in these portraits could never be achieved by artists who merely wanted to look beautiful.
“The Autumn Garden,” Hellman’s favorite of her plays, was her bid to create a Chekhovian study in paralyzing regrets. Unlike the works for which she is most famous, “The Little Foxes” and “The Children’s Hour,” this one is not a morality melodrama.
Lives are not ruined in “The Autumn Garden” by vicious lies and rabid avarice, but by passivity and bad faith. Its 40-ish characters, enacting a threadbare summer ritual of reuniting at a Louisiana boarding house they once knew as a grand private home, have only themselves to blame for how things turned out.
Hellman, being the unforgiving writer she was, blames them too, which is partly why “The Autumn Garden” lacks the timeless delicacy of Chekhov. Harold Clurman, who directed the original Broadway production and was known to nip the hand that fed him, wrote of her characters: “She does not believe they deserve her (or our) love. ... Miss Hellman is a fine artist; she will be a finer one when she melts.”
Mr. Jones’s interpretation isn’t afraid to melt, and it provides a gentle compassion that is not necessarily in the script and sometimes feels at odds with it. But it seems petty to complain about a production that so graciously gives theater connoisseurs what they want, and seldom get, from a summer playhouse: a chance to discover unexpected sides of a familiar writer and familiar performers.
The story is slight by Hellman standards. Constance Tuckerman (Ms. Janney) has converted the house where she grew up into a genteel summer resort, reserved largely for friends of her youth. (Thomas Lynch’s pale-toned set exudes a timeworn fragility.) As these old acquaintances rub against and withdraw from one another, finally saying things that had remained unsaid for decades, it becomes clear that this will be the last of their summers together.
Hellman, unlike Chekhov, didn’t put much stock in the eloquence of the unspoken. Her characters give harsh, strained voice to the playwright’s judgment of them: “We’ve only had one trouble; you hate yourself for loving me,” for example, or “You’ve done more than stayed young: you’ve stayed a child.” As is often the case with Hellman, the play seems to preen its sense of its own unflinching honesty.
And “The Autumn Garden” has placed two abrasive truth-tellers, one young and one old, among her middle-aged masters of evasion: Sophie, Constance’s teenage niece from Europe (played with a French accent by Mamie Gummer), and the elderly, witheringly witty Mary Ellis (Elizabeth Franz). Their shared raison d’être is to puncture pretensions and illusions, and we are fortunate that the excellent Ms. Franz and Ms. Gummer find the characters within the functions.
But Hellman also created some gorgeously detailed scenes that, more than anything else she wrote, reveal the sour and specific forms of interdependence that keep unhappy couples together. The play is strongest in its portraits of two claustrophobic marriages: between the feckless, narcissistic Nick Denery (Mr. Hickey) and Nina (Ms. Hecht), a brittle society matron frozen one step short of rebellion; and between the laconic, weary Benjamin Griggs (Brian Kerwin) and the logorrheic, eternally girlish Rose (Ms. Plunkett).
The marital discontent of these characters infects and roils the lives of those around them: Constance, who has always loved Nick; Ned Crossman (Rufus Collins), who loved Constance but has grown tired of waiting for her; and Carrie Ellis (Cynthia Mace), Mary’s daughter and the smothering mother of the sweet, hapless Frederick (Eric Murdoch), who is engaged to Sophie in what is more business arrangement than romance.
Every member of the cast is matched almost perfectly with his or her part, a rare and blessed occurrence. Mr. Hickey (“Cabaret,” “Love! Valour! Compassion!”) gives what may be his finest performance as a professional charmer destroyed and made cruel by his reliance on being likable. The invaluable Ms. Hecht delivers a surgical anatomy of a masochistic society woman. (Her hard laughter registers as both an aggressive weapon and a defensive shield for a frightened and insecure woman.)
Ms. Plunkett, who won a Tony some 20 years ago for “Me and My Girl,” is heartbreaking as the fluttery, attention-starved Rose, her overripe flesh spilling over low-cut necklines (the sociologically exact costumes are by Ilona Somogyi) and plying a little-girl cuteness that on some level she knows no longer works. Ms. Mace, Mr. Kerwin and particularly Mr. Collins all offer affecting glimpses of people clinging, just barely, to the manufactured images that get them through the day.
Ms. Janney, who did memorable work on Broadway (“Present Laughter,” “A View From the Bridge”) before achieving television stardom on “The West Wing,” hasn’t lost her stage chops. The stoical Constance is the least showy of the female parts. But Ms. Janney finds a tremulous, awkward hopefulness within the character’s seeming stolidity.
The play’s most touching moment comes when Constance, who has just been rejected by a man she has offered herself to, says to him with forced casual cheer, “Let’s have a nice dinner together, just you and me, and go to the movies.” Hellman may have despised the moral cowardice of her characters. But Ms. Janney finds a wrenching Chekhovian courage in one woman’s will to go on with her life as if it didn’t hurt her every waking hour.