Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 2008
Two men enter and talk. They may have been here and done this before, and they may not. They may be free to leave, and they may not. As time passes two other characters enter and cause us to question what we have learned so far. The four characters interact. In the end, the two men are left alone on the stage as night falls.
Since you are reading a review of the WTF production of David Storey’s Home you would be correct in thinking that that is the play described above. But if I showed you a line up of the plays I was reviewing this summer and asked you to tell me which play the paragraph above was referring to, you would probably have selected Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. And one of the main reasons you would have done so is that most Americans have some educational exposure to ...Godot whereas Home is an unknown quantity in this country.
To further the American confusion between Home and Waiting for Godot most of us are now familiar with the popular 1990's BritCom Waiting for God, which has been airing on PBS for several years now, starring Dame Stephanie Cole and Graham Crowden, set in an old-age home whose brick facade is almost identical to Tobin Ost’s set for this production.
Home which was a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1970, made it in America on the strength of its cast, not its subject. Everyone who bought a ticket came to see Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson. They would have been even happier to buy tickets to see that team in ...Godot. It lost every Tony for which it was nominated (Brian Bedford beat Gielgud, Richardson, AND Alex McCowen to win Best Actor in a Play in 1971!) and slipped into oblivion. It is a very British play.
As you may have noticed, if I am seeing/reviewing a play that may need interpretation, I try to take along a friend who knows more about the subject than I do. And as I watched Home I was acutely aware that my ideal companion, the person who could have unraveled many of its mysteries for me, was my late father, who was born just outside the (British) city of Gloucester in 1913. So if you have a genuine Brit in your life, particularly one who can remember what life in the U.K. was like in 1970, I suggest that you bring him or her along.
Like ...Godot, Home is beautifully if obscurely written and in this WTF production directed by Joseph Hardy it is splendidly acted by Philip Goodwin, Richard Easton, Dana Ivey, Roberta Maxwell, and C.J. Wilson.
The title refers to both the British homeland, and to the place Harry (Goodwin), Jack (Easton), Kathleen (Maxwell), Marjorie (Ivey), and Alfred (Wilson) call home, which is never named or identified, but which one comes to suspect is what used to euphemistically be called a “Rest Home” – a mental hospital. In other words these five people may be completely insane (Alfred may even be lobotomized) or they may not. It is not unheard of for people, especially older people, and Harry, Jack, Kathleen, and Marjorie are all senior citizens, to be committed for reasons other than diagnosed mental illnesses.
As older people will, this foursome (Alfred appears to be in his late thirties and makes only brief appearances in the second act) spends a lot of time lamenting the decline of good society and the hopeless state of young people today. Today being Britain in 1970. The information I felt I lacked was what the precise socio-political climate was in the U.K. at that time, and how the British class system played into the characters’ interaction. My father wasn’t living in Britain in 1970, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1946 after a stint in the RAF (Royal Air Force) in World War II. For that I could have used the help of my Uncle Bill, who died two years ago at the age of 98. He was a life-long British subject and ALWAYS had a loud opinion about the nation’s politics. But Dad, who immigrated precisely because he couldn’t stand the British class system, could have helped me with the latter.
Kathleen is a member of the lower class. This reflected in her speech and accent (Henry Higgins can still earn a good living in Britain because speech is still a great indicator of social status). It also means she is the least repressed, and here Maxwell is delightful as Kathleen openly expresses her mirth or disgust promptly and loudly.
The other three characters are all of higher status, and are progressively more rigidly restrained in their expression of feelings of any kind. Harry is so unable to communicate that he frequently just quietly cries.
In the first act we spend the majority of the time with Harry and Jack as they take the air before lunch. Ost’s set, while attractive, is just as barren and symmetrically ordered as the society within it. The funny thing is, when I first saw it I thought “Oh look, an autumn garden.” The Autumn Garden by Lillian Hellman was the closing show on the WTF Main Stage last season.
Jack and Harry represent the old guard. Assuming they are both about 70 years old in 1970, they would have been born around 1900 and would have fought in World War I, not World War II. Both wars brought radical change to life in Britain, and while Jack and Harry would only have childhood memories of Edwardian life, they would have grown up hearing adults speak of the loss of innocence and order that occurred in 1914. And they would have experienced first-hand the disintegration of the British Empire during the 20th century, as well as the decay of the very rigid class system that was in place at the start of that century.
I place Ivey’s Marjorie slightly lower on the social ladder than Jack and Harry, neither of whom is upper class (if any of what they tell us about themselves is the truth!), but higher than Kathleen. She one of those no-nonsense tweedy British ladies who enjoys her cuppa and keeps the home fires burning.
Act II takes place after lunch, but before tea, and, as it would at that time of day in Britain in autumn, the sun starts to set. It is Jack who mentions it, and Rui Rita’s lights that make it so, but you immediately realize that it is not the physical sunset he is referring to, but the metaphorical Sun Setting on the British Empire*.
Alejo Vietti’s costumes do a good job of helping the actors set the class and temperament of their characters. From Harry’s vest and walking stick to Marjorie’s cardigan and Kathleen’s silly shoes, everything is as it should be.
Pleasant as this production is, Home seems an odd choice for a WTF Main Stage show. With its small cast, single set, and oblique dialogue it would have felt more at home on the Nikos Stage. The audience I attended with was small for a Saturday night in August, but I am happy to say that there wasn’t a mass exodus at intermission. While many were probably puzzled by the whole business, they stuck with it, taking interest in the fine characterizations and precise direction in lieu of plot and action. And the show doesn't overstay its welcome, clocking in at just 90 minutes even with an intermission between the Acts.
Home runs through August 24 on the Main Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs 90 minutes with one intermission. While there is nothing unsavory about it, it will be boring for most young people, so I would leave the kids at home. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-597-3400.
*The British Empire was the largest in world history to date, but hardly the first one on whom its rulers claimed “the sun never set.” The reason they could use that motto was because the sun had already set on all the others - the Holy Roman Empire, the Spanish Empire, etc. - by the time Britain became a world power. You think this might have been a sign unto them...
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008