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Trelawny of the Wells
While Monte is not only earning her credit for stylishly directing a play that has (according to her program note) been on her wish list to direct for thirty years, but also for serving as co-scenic designer (with Anita Tripathi Easterling) and for the sound design, all of which is proof that she needn’t be concerned that her ambitious efforts have been spread too thin. Costume designer Hugh Hanson didn’t need an assist in creating an eye-filling array of late Victorian attire.
Last produced (also according to program notes) at Lincoln Center in 1975 with a stellar cast that included Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, Mandy Patinkin and Marybeth Hurt, Trelawny of the Wells is, as is evident in this production, in no way dependant for its success upon a sizable cast of theatrical luminaries. What is in evidence is a first-rate cast, each of whom goes to the most delightful ends to bring a sparkling resonance to their characters as well as to the play’s cleverly concealed substance and its more conspicuously conscripted superficiality. Both aspects have been wonderfully achieved by this company, many of whom audiences will recognize as part of a core of returning STNJ artists.
Pinero, whose career as an actor and as a prolific playwright (The Second Mrs. Tanqueray and Dandy Dick, among his most famous of fifty-nine plays) is not likely to rekindle memories of them besides Trelawny of the Wells, but we’ll be more than satisfied if this one is kept in the repertoire for the future. Although this play set in the 1860s, an era when stage actors had little use for or interest in subtlety or nuance and relied on their abilities and instincts for their stage performances to be seen as being larger in life in every gesture and posture, it also looks back affectionately to this time and through the romantic and professional journey of a lovely young ingénue Rose Trelawny (Nisi Sturgis).
As ordained by family tradition, Rose’s career in the theater appears bright as a rising star within the Bagnigge-Wells Theatre Company, at the same time that a fellow member of the company with playwriting aspirations Tom Wrench (John Patrick Hayden) is about to make a major breakthrough with a new and more realistic style of dramatic literature. But Rose’s career, however, is short-circuited when she decides to marry her handsome and wealthy sweetheart Arthur Gower (Jordan Coughtry) despite the displeasure of his stuffy ultra conservative family. Having agreed to move into the stately residence of Arthur’s grandfather Sir William Gower (Edmond Genest) and his great aunt Miss Trafalgar Gower (Jennifer Harmon) until the wedding, Rose, nevertheless, finds it impossible to either conform to their rigid rules of behavior or gracefully respect their cool attitude toward her.
With support from her friends in the theater, Rose realizes her mistake, abandons her sweetheart and returns to the theater. Rose’s sojourn with the Gower’s has, however, affected her personality so that she is no longer able to play her roles with the required excess of melodrama. And what of Arthur who has run off in despair to be an actor at the Bristol Old Vic? And what does fate have in store for Rose and Arthur when Sir William remembers going to the theater in his youth and how much he admired the acting of Edmund Keen. One of the most joyous moments in the play comes as Sir William (a beautifully calibrated performance by Genest) not only remembers Keen as Richard III, but also personifies the great Shakespearean actor in speech and movement to Rose’s delight and amazement.
It is to our delight and amazement how delectably and deliberately each member of this rather large company (some doubling their roles) defines their larger-than-life characters. I guess it’s not a secret that the play’s sweethearts – Sturgis and Coughtry – are a couple in real life, a fact that brings a special spark to their clinches. Coughtry is excellent and cuts a fine figure, but there is a radiance that surrounds Sturgis throughout the play from Rose’s days as a willful and intractable actress to her emergence as a wiser and more mature artist. Hayden is amusing as Wrench the glib, progressive playwright who is destined to find more than a backer for his play thanks to the entrepreneurial wiles of a determined and an extremely beguiling actress Imogen Parrot (a vivacious performance by Caralyn Kozlowski).
The first of the play’s four acts (divided by one intermission) takes place in the lodgings for theater folk run by aging stars Mr. & Mrs. Telfers (played respectively and with resourceful flair by John Fitzgibbon and Elizabeth Shepard). The occasion is a dinner party to announce Rose’s engagement to Arthur and her retirement from the theater. The fun begins immediately with the entrance of a klutzy green-grocer Mr. Ablett (Matt Sullivan) who has been hired to “play” the role of a butler, a role inclined to upstage even the resident “gypsies,” such disarming scenery-chewers as leading man Ferdinand Gadd (Jon Barker) and his future squeeze but forever squealing Avonia Bunn (Rachel Fox). The play achieves true poignancy, however, when the Telfers become resigned toward the end of the play to accepting less important roles than were once offered to them. Set changes for the subsequent acts are mostly confined to moving props and decor, a feat performed by the actors that becomes an engrossing drama in itself.
To be sure, a series of contrivances lead us to a climactic moment when the lovers are reunited, the playwright finds a producer with money, and the theater enters a new era. Presenting classic theater for fifty consecutive years is something to be proud of as is Monte’s blissful production of Trelawny of the Wells, an entertainment for the holiday season that will be remembered as a highlight of her twenty-two years as the STNJ’s artistic director.
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