Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Joanna Murray-Smith's Honour is a Penetrating Production

Kathleen Chalfant and John Doman
The Berkeley Repertory Company is presenting Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith's dysfunctional family drama Honour at their Trust Stage through July 3rd. The 90-minute piece features two prominent performers: Broadway veteran Kathleen Chalfant and television actor John Doman, who is best known for playing Deputy Commissioner William Rawls on HBO's The Wire.

Honour premiered at Melbourne's Playbox Theatre in 1995 and the following year was given a reading at Vassar College with Meryl Streep and Sam Waterston. The American premiere occurred on April 2, 1998 at the Belasco Theatre where it ran for 57 performances. Jane Alexander returned to the Broadway stage as Honor with a great supporting cast of Robert Foxworth, Laura Linney and Enid Graham. The Associated Press called it "a bold domestic drama." The sophisticated play finally reached the Royal National Theatre in London in 2003 with Eileen Atkins playing Honour and Corin Redgrave playing the wayward husband. The Times called it a "gripping and powerful piece."

Honour has played in many cities in this country, including an interesting production by Playhouse West in the Bay Area several years ago. The play is especially well received by long-term middle-aged married couples who identify with either Honor or her husband George. The play purports to be wrenchingly honest about sex and marriage between long married couples. The opening scene has George (John Doman), a distinguished literary journalist, being interviewed by bright-eyed, ambitious 26-year-old Claudia (Christa Scott-Reed). She is doing a book abut George and there is a strong sexual attraction between the two during this session. This experience is so unsettling that the husband walks out on his wife of thirty-two years, stating that the young woman is making his sex life exciting again. It looks like male menopause is acting up on this guy.

Honor is a highly intelligent and articulate woman who gave up a career as a fast rising publish poet when she married George thirty two years prior. She put everything on hold for all those years to help her husband reach the top of the journalistic ladder and to be a full-time mother to their now 26-year-daughter Sophie (Emily Donahoe).

Joanna Murray-Smith's play is brutally honest and it has a penetrating edge with questions asked during the wordy construction of the drama. Is marriage meant to last a lifetime? Is it right to sacrifice your individuality for the good of your spouse? Can fidelity work, and what's really behind a midlife crisis? The playwright attempts to answer all of these questions in this intellectual soap opera. Many of the long dissertations on these subjects are over-extended word plays. The playwright tries to write incisive dialogue like Tom Stoppard, Edward Albee or even T.S. Elliott. She does not succeed. She uses far too many clich├ęs that we have heard a dozen times, even on the daily television soap operas. The words contain too many epigrams and are boring after a time. They are not as timely or unique in this century.

Honour does contain some sharp and tense confrontations in the scenes between the Sophia and Claudia. The final war of words between George and Claudia on their relationship is beautifully written, especially when Claudia explains her interest in the older man.

Honour's cast rises above the writing and it seems that the women have the best scenes. These scenes are razor-sharp, tense and ingenious in expressions. Kathleen Chalfant (1996 OBIE award for Sustained Excellence of Performance plus countless awards for Wit and Angels In America) gives a restrained performance as Honor that is engrossing. She brilliantly registers the paroxysmal shock of seeing thirty-two years of marriage abruptly terminated at a moment notice. This is acting at its finest.

John Doman (Off-Broadway Robbers and on Broadway True West, The Seagull and Fool for Love) seems miscast as an intelligent editor and journalist. There is no fire in his performance, especially in his confrontation with his wife - even in the last scene with his younger sex partner. He maintains the same level of emotion throughout the whole play.

Emily Donahoe as the young daughter is a real scene stealer. She plays the role skillfully and she has more savoir-faire than the two other women. Her disagreement with her mother's refusal to fight for her marriage is brilliantly acted. The rage in her acting is gripping. Christa Scott-Reed as Claudia tends to race her speech especially during the important interview scene that opens the play. She displays the sexual prowess of a Black Widow spider. Her last speech, when she informs George of the true reason for the relationship, is well done.

Tony Taccone's staging is excellent. Scenic designer Annie Smart has designed a smart set that looks like an upscale apartment of a successful married couple. There are many books and a wall of thick glass panels with excellent lighting by Alexander V. Nichlos. Lydia Tanji has designed some very chic outfits for the women; the sloppy jeans and college sweatshirt for the daughter are right in line with her lifestyle as a no nonsense woman.

Honour runs on the Berkeley Repertory Theatre Trust Stage, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley through July 3rd. For tickets call 510-647-2949 or visit . The Repertory Theatre Company will open their 2005-2006 season with Thornton Wilder's Our Town on September 9 through October 23rd.

Photo: Ken Friedman

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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