Monday, September 2, 2013

Obscure Plays at the Shaw

Jeff Irving & Benedict Campbell in Trifles
Probably the earliest feminist work by an American playwright, Susan Glaspell's 1916 one-act Trifles is often anthologized but seldom produced. The Shaw Festival is correcting that error of omission this season with a stark, potent revival in the lunchtime slot at the Court House Theatre, where it's double-billed with an even more obscure piece, A Wife for a Life, the first play by Eugene O'Neill; both are directed by Meg Rose. Glaspell and O'Neill were friends and colleagues: he was first produced by the Provincetown Players, the outgrowth of a literary circle of which Glaspell and her husband (and sometime collaborator) George Cram Cook were prominent members.

Trifles has a lot in common with Machinal, Sophie Treadwell's 1928 expressionist play. Each was inspired by a scandalous court case in which a woman was convicted of murdering her husband, and each presents the murderess in an entirely sympathetic light. The key difference aside from style  Glaspell is a realist  is that in Trifles we never meet the woman, Mrs. Wright, whose model is the Iowa farm wife, Margaret Hossack, sent to prison for life in 1900 for hatcheting her husband while he slept beside her. The play takes place in the Wright homestead after Mrs. Wright has been apprehended and is awaiting trial. The county attorney (Jeff Irving) and the sheriff (Graeme Somerville) have brought Lewis Hale (Benedict Campbell), who found the body, back to the house to depose him. Accompanying this trio of men are the sheriff's wife, Mrs. Peters (Kaylee Harwood), a relative newcomer to the area, and Mrs. Hale (Julain Molnar, in the role Glaspell played in the original production), who have volunteered to gather a few items to cheer Mrs. Wright in her jail cell. Their conversation while the men are in another room is the dramatic centrepiece. Reading "trifles" on which the men place no value, Mrs. Hale, who has known the accused killer since they were girls together, reconstructs her lonely, oppressed life, and the two women collaborate to suppress the single piece of evidence that would provide the motive the attorney is seeking for his case  and that confirms their empathy for the plight of a kindred soul, her spirit broken by a difficult, isolated life and a joyless, sadistic husband. The item is a broken-necked bird; the symbolism is both overstated and borrowed (from Strindberg's Miss Julie), but the play is undeniably effective. So are the ensemble cast and Camellia Koo's simple wooden set. Molnar's portrayal of Mrs. Hale, whose compassion bleeds through a gruff rural exterior, is a standout.

A Wife for a Life is a melodrama about the relationship between two gold prospectors, Jack (Irving) and an older unnamed man (Campbell), partners since Jack saved the other man's life. O'Neill hadn't figured out the art of dramatic structure at this point  he enrolled in George Pierce Baker's playwriting course at Yale in the fall of 1913, a few months after he'd penned this novice effort  so the play is nothing but a series of revelations. Jack receives a letter from the woman he loves, who returned his affection but refused to cheat on her drunken brute of a husband. But then the husband disappeared mysteriously, and she promised that if he didn't resurface in a year she'd assume he was dead and write Jack to return to her. The letter arrives a year later to the day, and the old man, alone when a fellow miner (Somerville) drops it by, opens it. The old man, of course, is the abusive husband, who went hunting for his wife's lover, never dreaming that she had remained faithful to him  or that the man who saved his life was his rival. There would be no reason to mount A Wife for a Life (even the title is clunky) for anyone except O'Neill completists if it weren't for its juxtaposition with Trifles, which moves a secondary theme of O'Neill's play  the miserable treatment of a woman at the hands of a man who doesn't deserve her  to the foreground. Seen in tandem, the two one-acts feel like ghost stories in which the absent female figures hover over the characters who weight their endurance and their worth.

Peace in Our Time

Peace in Our Time, John Murrell's adaptation of a George Bernard Shaw satire called Geneva written on the brink of the Second world War, gasses on for the first three (short) acts. Then, after intermission, for plot reasons not worth going into, the venue shifts to a palace in The Hague, where a senior judge (Sanjay Talwar) puts Europe's three fascist leaders on trial for crimes against humanity. At this point Neil Barclay, Ric Red and Lorne Kennedy enter noisily one by one through the Court House audience in hilarious gear (designed by Victoria Wallace) to impersonate Il Duce, Der Führer and Generalísimo respectively. Their performances take the art of caricature to a very high level; this final hour is like a triumphantly extended Saturday Night Live episode. Blair Williams directed.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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