The bracket around the third star indicates, quite deliberately, that this is a difficult dramatic event to review. As has become customary, the Orange Tree cast plays the script for all it is worth, Sam Walters directs with tight but unobtrusive control, while costumes, lighting and other ancillary matters are handled with equally unobtrusive competence.
The script, however, has some major shortcomings.
Susan Glaspell was an American playwright active from 1914 until the later 1920s. In 1915 she helped found the Provincetown Players, which, in 1918, took over a small playhouse in Greenwich Village and continued to function in that area until 1929. So far, so good. The Provincetown Players bears a more than passing resemblance to Richmond, Surrey’s Orange Tree in their aims and mode of functioning and views regarding the social and political purposes of theatre. It is unsurprising that the Orange Tree has revived several of her plays with considerable success, including the Pulitzer Prize winner Alison’s House.
The late twenties and the thirties were in some respects unhappy times for Glaspell, both professionally and in her private life. She abandoned the professional theatre. She attempted a return to it when she wrote Springs Eternal in 1943. But the play was neither published nor performed. The Orange Tree staging is its world premiere.
The audience at the press night had a whale of a time during the two acts that precede the interval. The play is set in New York State in October 1943. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, American boys are fighting and dying on remote Pacific islands. The optimism of the New Deal era is crumbling rapidly. Owen, a writer of high-flown works embodying that optimism, is embittered and takes his feelings out on his second wife, Margaret, but also on his first wife, Harry (a.k.a. Harriet), who is present with her husband Stewie (who goes missing quite soon), a big shot of some undefined sort from Washington.
In the offing is a doctor, who is dressed as a workman because he was neither married couple seems to be much committed to fidelity, a matter complicated by the presence, then apparently abducted absence, of a young woman called Dottie. None of them seem to be able to have an engaged conversation, particularly Harriet who manages, while remaining absolutely ditsy, to maintain a conviction that at more or less every moment she is discovering insights, or reiterating already discovered insights, of transcendently beautiful wisdom to do with human affairs and grown up relationships.
Every now and again we see something of a young man who is introduced as a soldier and doctor but is dressed as a handyman, causing great confusion to the residents of the house. Also present is Mrs Soames, the housekeeper, who in her conventional, stoic way, emerges as the person before us nearest to having anything like genuine insights into how humans function.
For two acts all this zips along, with plenty of good lines, many of them cruel or exasperated putdowns. ‘Will you always carry on from where you have not left off,’ cries the doctor/handyman in exasperation. And ‘I don’t know what she thinks––and I don’t agree with it.’ And ‘Listen, my nutty friend. I know why we have a war. People are like you.’
Glaspell has a lot of good lines and is a perceptive explorer of the existential crisis which hit America in those years when carriers of the Star Spangled Banner found themselves being cruelly slaughtered through no fault of their or America’s own, as they saw it, in jungles, mud and horror on Pacific Islands they had never heard of.
What she lacks here is any sense of a dramatic action being shaped and pursued. And, in the last, lengthy act, following the interval, I will surely not be the only person to anticipate, a few minutes after it begins, the twist in these personal confrontations and events which will eventually resolve the play.
But credit where credit is due. I was laughing throughout the first two acts as were most people in the theatre. This is very much the sort of thing the Orange Tree has won enormous and justified credit for doing. But, my notes show that fifteen minutes in I had no idea where we were going, and little idea where any of the characters themselves wanted to go. In many ways, sadly, the play might have been called ‘Six Quarrels in Search of a Hastily Drafted Resolution.’
Thank you to Sam Walters for showing us this play and thank you to the actors for their devotion to it. I just wish Glaspell had discovered a little more shape in what she was doing.