The Autumn Garden by Lillian Hellman. Directed by David Jones.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"You are just exactly the way I remember you. And that I wouldnít have believed of any man."
At the Tuckerman house, a bed and breakfast establishment on the gulf coast about 100 miles from New Orleans, summer folk are winding up their season and preparing to return home to their real lives. It is September, with Autumn just around the corner. Before people can depart there is one last grand party, one more picnic fling, one more couple to come and visit and about twenty years of longings and wrongings to wring out like the B&B laundry. Constance Tuckerman has been in love with Nicholas Denery, who left her for another woman, all this time. Their best friend Edward (Ned)Crossman has felt the same way about her. Nina Denery, the wife, has been used and abused, abandoned for French maids, passionately restored to the bosom of her amateur husband and emotionally throttled for her devotion all this time. When this foursome come together in a weird sort of reunion you just know hurricane season canít be far behind in the Gulf of Mexico.
On the main stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival this is the set-up for the seasonís final show, a delicious play by Lillian Hellman, possibly her finest ensemble work. There are a dozen characters, each as important in the context of these confused lives as any other. There is a southern style that would make Tennessee Williams blush, even a bit of pre-form that one might believe he stole for a later masterpiece as Frederick Ellis and his mother depart for a six-month European trip.
There are peripheral characters who make as much of an impact on the lives they touch as the principals do to one another. At the final fade-out Constance utters words that may be the theme, not just of this play, but of most of Hellmanís works: "Most of us lie to ourselves, darling. Most of us." It is a touching way to end a comedy of total errors, a moving tribute to a life spent illuminating those lies as Hellman did from 1934's "The Childrenís Hour" onward.
Williamstown has assembled a brilliant company to play out this final week of summer on the Gulf. Allison Janney is Constance. Is Constance. There seems to be no playing in her work, but rather a living out on stage of realities that we can only hope are nothing like her own. She appears to be intricately wound up in her characterís problems. There is no way to separate her from Constance. The Allison Janney of recent television and film experiences is not this woman on stage. She disappears completely into the woman Hellman has created. This is acting at its most complete.
John Benjamin Hickey plays Nick Denery with an energy and a verve that brings flashes of bright light into the rooms of Tuckerman House. He bubbles over like the champagne he canít drink easily. As Constance hangs on every word he utters, so do we. He has a way of making horrific flaws in character seem almost acceptable because of who he is. Nick is not likeable, after a time, and Hickey plays that aspect of him without fear or hesitation. He actually bring complexity to a fairly easy to read man. As his wife Jessica Hecht gives an enormous performance. This woman is complex and Hecht reveals Ninaís internal diversity with constant bursts of clarity. As a couple they are not your ideal houseguests. Individually they are easy to cherish.
The Ellis family is endlessly fascinating. Cynthia Mace is Carrie, a childhood friend of Nick, Ned and Constance. She is the oddest woman, the strangest mother, the most despairing daughter-in-law. In Maceís hands Carrie becomes a frightening human being striving to control situations that she cannot grasp. As her son, Frederick, Eric Murdoch has a hard job holding his own. He does so with a smile and an inward gasp and a furtive kiss. His grandmother is played by Elizabeth Franz. Franz proves that if you want a serious line with a comic edge to resonate with both characters and audience you must cast Elizabeth Franz. She never has a false moment in this play. Her involvement with her environment and surroundings, her adept manner in calling spades "spades" are the stock-in-trade she employs. I would have this family to dinner, but never have them spend the night. A wonderful combination of actors and roles.
Brian Kerwin and Maryann Plunkett play General Benjamin Griggs and his wife Rose. This couple is the odd couple in the play. Once again they come across as totally honest and real and that is a tribute to the talent behind the roles. This is a troubled duo who play out their own tragic affairs in front of others. Plunkett takes a major plunge into sudden maturity in her role and Kerwin suffers the pangs of emotion as he forces himself to feel something genuine for his wife. Containing tears is what their third act moments is all about, containing their tears, containing ours.
Ned Crossman, the third major member of the love triangle here, is played nicely if a bit arms-length by Rufus Collins. He seemed a bit too detached to me, but as the one member of this houseful of temporary borders he also seemed to be the one that most people could depend upon to never waver, never change. There is a surprise in him that Collins brings forward with a gentleness that allows Constance to change a bit also. Her niece, Sophie, is a lovely actress named Mamie Gummer. Sophie is a swivel hook of a character, acquiescent where she needs to be, staunch and odd when she must be. She begins with an ideal life and ends as a person not to be trusted. Gummer makes it all feel right, which is an artistís responsibility.
David Jones has made memorable people you donít necessarily want to know well, certainly not this well. As director he has woven his cast into the deepest reaches of their characters and given them the freedom to touch, to move and to relate to one another in many different ways. His stage pictures are always right for their moments. Itís a fine job of directing a difficult play.
The set by Thomas Lynch seems just right for this play. Likewise Ilona Somogyiís costumes reflect the people who wear them, both in style and color. David Weiner has designed subtle and effective lighting, although his early definition of space, indoor and outdoor, could use another look.
"The Autumn Garden" is not about a garden or about the change of seasons. It is a play about the final growth spurts of humans planted in an environment that cannot support much life in the wintry landscape to come in their lives. To keep growing they must all be uprooted and transplanted to other climes. Hellmanís play is an outburst, a cry against stagnation in relationships and in love, and the company in Williamstown is making all of that remarkably clear.
At three hours in running time, it is three hours extremely well spent with a company of players who seem to understand that theater does what Hellman wants her characters to do: move on and keep moving. Donít miss this one. You need to keep moving, too.
John Benjamin Hickey and Jessica Hecht as Nick and Nina Denery; photo: Carol Rosegg
Brian Kerwin and Maryann Plunkett and Benjamin and Rose Griggs; photo: Carol Rosegg
Elizabeth Franz and Eric Murdoch as Mary and Frederick Ellis; photo: Carol Rosegg
"The Autumn Garden" runs through August 26 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-597-3400.