Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 2007
The title of this 1951 Lillian Hellman play is evocative. Imagine a garden in autumn – the light just so, the summer greens muted towards brown, wind swirling colorful leaves into ever changing patterns… Of course this play is set in September on the Gulf Coast, so none of those New England images apply, but if that wasn’t the feeling Hellman was going for it is certainly the sense that director David Jones, set designer Thomas Lynch, and lighting designer David Weiner have achieved.
On a typically handsome WTF MainStage set Lynch has created intriguing layers of life in Constance Tuckerman’s house, well mated with Hellman’s easy flow of characters and events and Jones’ seamless direction. Constance (Allison Janney) is an unmarried 40-something who now runs her family home as what we would today call a Bed & Breakfast with the aid of her French niece, Sophie (Mamie Gummer), and a "colored" servant, Leon (Rama C. Marshall).
Staying in the house on this last week of the 1949 summer season are the flighty Rose Griggs (Maryann Plunkett) and her estranged husband General Benjamin Griggs (Brian Kerwin); the middle-aged widow Carrie Ellis (Cynthia Mace), her young son Frederick (Eric Murdoch), who has inexplicably gotten himself engaged to Sophie, and her mother-in-law Mrs. Mary Ellis (Elizabeth Franz); Edward “Ned” Crossman (Rufus Collins); and the new arrivals, Nick Denery (John Benjamin Hickey), his wife Nina (Jessica Hecht), and their German maidservant Hilda (Brooke Parks). Constance, Ned, and Nick grew up together. Constance and Nick were an item, and Nick thinks that Constance and Ned are one currently.
With the exception of Leon and Hilda, all of these characters have their own stories which play out in various combinations over the course of the play. Nick is a lout who passes himself off as a human being and an artist when he is neither. The impact his endlessly selfish behavior has on the entire household is monumental, although he gets off scott free. The General wants a divorce and Rose wants desperately to hold on to him. Everyone knows that Frederick is gay (although this is inferred in classically oblique 1950’s lingo), but Sophie is staunchly prepared to marry him in spite of his sexual orientation, his suffocatingly clinging mother, AND the fact that they are not in love. Her motivations become vividly clear in the final scenes.
In order to understand why this play would have been anything more than a well-written little soap opera, one has to turn one’s mental clock back to 1951 and realize not only how very, very shocking many of the topics and storylines would have been considered back then, but how doubly shocking it would have been that a woman could and would write about them. Until the 1980’s Lillian Hellman was the ONLY female American playwright most people had ever heard, and certainly the only one considered a great writer.
By the time of The Autumn Garden, Hellman was already an established writer with the even more controversial The Children’s Hour (1934), The Little Foxes (1939), Watch on the Rhine (1941) and Another Part of the Forest (1946) to her credit. The Autumn Garden, which Hellman once called her favorite piece of writing, was the last of her “southern plays.” The year after it was produced on Broadway Hellman was called to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee where she famously refused to name names and got herself black-listed.
But what was then scandalous and capable of ruining a life is now common place and generally considered acceptable. With the shock value removed, what you have left in The Autumn Garden are the characters, and they remain fully-formed and interesting. Jones has assembled a strong cast and directed with a fine touch.
Janney is fine in the oddly flaccid central character of Constance. Of all the stories hers has the least satisfactory resolution, but she provides a solid center around which the rest of the action swirls.
Franz is a delight as the outspoken Mary Ellis. She handles some of Hellman’s more proclamatory lines with ease and provides a voice of reason throughout. Mace is every bit her equal as her iron-willed daughter-in-law, and Murdoch was refreshingly un-fey as Frederick. Hellman makes it very clear that Frederick is a good man, willing to do right by Sophie in their marriage of convenience. In the days when being openly gay was not possible (and even today), gay men frequently married understanding women and led double lives.
Two of the most interesting characters in the play are Sophie and Nina Denery, and Gummer and Hecht are excellent in their roles. In case you were not aware, Gummer is the 24-year-old daughter of actress Meryl Streep and artist Don Gummer, who has completed her college education and additional training at the British Academy of Dramatic Arts and started on her own successful acting career with a award-winning performance in Mr. Marmalade in New York and screen roles in the recently released Evening and the forthcoming Stop Loss. In the scene here where Sophie is almost raped, you could feel the audience ready to rise to their feet and cry “Unhand Meryl Streep’s daughter, you brute!” But Sophie, taken from her home in France as a young teen when the Second World War was raging, is completely self-possessed and able to fend for herself. Gummer uses her own delicate blonde good looks and a soft, heavily-accented manner of speech as the perfect façade for Sophie’s iron-will and shrewd mind.
Hecht is once again cast as the much-abused wife, although here she tormented much more subtly and deliberately by the callous Nick than her Ruth was in Blithe Spirit by the hapless Charles and unsubstantial Elvira. Hellman has created in Nina a fatally human woman, one who cannot and ultimately does not want to escape the complex structure that is her marriage.
While Plunkett provides much of the comic relief, her Rose is also full realized and poignant.
Hickey provides a Nick that it is easy to loathe, but Collins and Kerwin are both burdened with having to play cipher-like and impotent men who rightly conclude that they have wasted their lives. Some people do.
While Hellman is not my favorite playwright, I have to confess that I thoroughly enjoyed this production of The Autumn Garden I wonder if we needed the two intermissions which stretched the evening to three hours. There were no major set changes that occurred during the intermissions, and there are just so many snacks and beverages people want to consume during a show.
The Autumn Garden runs through August 26 on the Main Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs three hours with two intermissions and is suitable for ages 14 and up. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-597-3400.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007