Though Susanna Centlivre was a well-known and highly performed playwright in the late 1600s and early 1700s, she is less familiar to audiences today. The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret, now at the Gloria Maddox Theatre, is strong enough evidence to prove she should not be forgotten again.
The play is highly farcical, so it's as common for its characters to hide in closets to avoid detection, or overhear something that is all to easily misunderstood to mean something else, as it may be in a similar play written today. That the play is populated with older men fiercely protective of the welfare of their daughters and lecherous (but good-hearted and perhaps confused) servants, should also be not much of a surprise.
But Centlivre, whose other works portray the strength and intelligence of women in a way unusual for the social climate in which she lived, keeps the women firmly at the forefront of her story here. The play is basically an examination of two women, Isabella (Elizabeth Alice Murray) and Violante (Ami Ankin), who become tangled up in a web of deceit when Violante agrees to keep Isabella's identity a secret from Colonel Briton (Mel England), whom she encounters under less than fortuitous circumstances. Violante's actions manage, at every turn, to ignite the ire of her own betrothed, Don Felix (Brian Avers).
Elizabeth Swain's direction makes sure that the proceedings always makes sense, even when it seems they shouldn't. Though relationships are made and lost with astonishing frequency and mishaps over approximately every other line, Swain even effectly counteracts the nearly 300 years of familiarity that could reduce the outlandish situations into little more than warmed-over late night television reruns. She is helped by Centlivre's intelligent characters who, while they may suffer anger or jealousy, are seldom afflicted with stupidity.
Though just about every actor gives an appropriately thoughtful and intelligent performance, the best is Luisa Tedoff. As Violante's servant Flora, who delights in her dalliances with different men, she always maintains firm control not only over the men with whom she coordinates her dalliances, but also her mistress's own complicated affairs of the heart. Tedoff's portrayal is wry and highly comic, but intensely honest. When she's onstage, she makes sure you can't take your eyes off her.
Ankin's Violante is a picture of velvet-voiced worldly elegance, while Murray's Isabella seems younger and less experienced, always at some level amazed at the madness her simple request has caused. England and Avers make good suitors for them, and J. M. McDonough gives a clever performance as Violante's father. Caroline Luft is good as the show's narrator, billed as Centlivre herself, who sets each scene and provides opening and closing words to the audience. Wry Lachlan, as Colonel Briton's intensely Scottish servant, is a bit overblown at times, but the remainder of the cast is fine.
The Wonder: A Woman Keeps A Secret is intelligent and enjoyable throughout, whether you know one or a hundred stories of its type. You may discover little new in the story, but the execution and care with which this production has been crafted will still keep it quite fresh indeed.
The Wonder: A Woman Keeps A Secret