Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
The play begins in the late 1870s within Africa. Living here is a British family and a few other people are in the neighborhood. The cast presents a song which speaks, with loyalty, of England. We meet Clive (Mark H. Dold), his wife Betty (Tom Pecinka), and their children. An actress in her middle years, Mia Dillon plays the couple's son Edward. Their daughter is represented by a doll. Also on stage are Joshua, an African servant (William John Austin; a white actor), Ellen (Sarah Lemp), who is Edward's governess; and Clive's mother-in-law Maud (Emily Gunyou Halaas). Mrs. Saunders (Sarah Lemp) and Harry Bagley (Chandler Williams) are included, too. Harry is gay and has feelings for Joshua. Clive is authoritative, blindly viewing life and times solely from his perspective. He is not pleased when Harry makes a pass at him. Clive wishes to exert his own will.
Designer Nick Vaughan imaginatively opens fully the large stage for the second act which occurs in London. The year is 1979 and actors all take on other roles. Gerry (William John Austin) opens this portion of the play and he is a man who quests for meaning. Gerry and Edward (Tom Pecinka) might be connecting. Mia Dillon now portrays Betty, who is recently divorced. Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas) is married to Martin (Chandler Williams). Victoria is taken with Lin (Sarah Lemp), a woman who has a daughter named Cathy (Mark H. Dold). Cathy ambles and rambles around the playground of sorts, and plays on various kid toys. The final hour of the show delves into, for example, relationships between Gerry and Edward and between Lin and Victoria.
When Churchill wrote her play and it was initially performed, everything transpiring after intermission must have felt quite different that it does now, 38 years later. It was a time, in London, when women were becoming liberated and when people were more likely to move away from traditional sexual roles. That epoch, as is the Victorian era depicted in the first act, becomes a part of history. Churchill, throughout her play, deliberately creates confusion around genders.
Cloud 9 is quite comic in a very basic way and Ilona Somogyi, providing wardrobe, assists. Pecinka looks jammed into Betty's dress early on. The get-up Mia Dillon wears to personify the boy, Edward, is definitely catchy. The costumer's hoot of a choice for Dold when he romps about as the girl, Cathy, is the first prize winner.
There isn't anything haphazard about this play. Rather, the talented performers are most disciplined. Many are trying to figure out who they are and find identities which are most appropriate. The playwright does link the two acts. Her characters, as they were seen in the first portion, briefly reappear. When the tune, "Cloud 9," is performed, it is done so with some vigor.
In all, Churchill's play speaks for freedom and for valued sexual choice. No one dominates the action and, as a group, this cast demonstrates versatility and dexterity. It's fun to see actors, after a 20-minute break, deftly assume other characters. The accents employed ring true as well. The author is clearly voicing her views through the actors. Clive is homophobic and he would be very much pleased if his son Edward could be more male. Martin, who is a straight man, does not want to rigidly control Victoria. He struggles to find his way. As the performance evolves, women become stronger and more able to vocalize both issues and desire for further and fuller emancipation.
Cloud 9 continues at Hartford Stage, in Hartford, Connecticut, through March 19th, 2017. For tickets, visit www.hartfordstage.org or call 860-527-5151.