Also see Sarah's review of The Cherry Orchard
Edith (Jill Tanner) is the uptight "good" daughter who gave up her job and her life to take care of their demanding mother for the last fifteen years. Her selfish younger sister Renata (Felicity La Fortune) moved away from home, experiencing life with a couple of wealthy husbands, rarely looking back. Forced to cohabit in the converted railway carriage "prison" that was mother's house, awaiting the reading of the will becomes a test of wills. When the solicitor Charles Mowbray (Will Lyman) finally arrives, Edith impatiently prods him to get down to business rather than engage in frivolous chitchat with flirtatious Renata. To the dismay of the former, the will declares that the estate is to be equally divided, although Edith may continue to reside in the home. However, mum's vast collection of antiques, furnishings and bric-a-brac are to be evaluated and all proceeds shared.
Absent a flashing neon sign or alarm bells sounding, we know that we've just been handed the source of the play's existential conflict. Justice, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and Edith wants to declare a mistrial. Echoes of the Smothers Brothers ("Mom always liked you best") resound in my head, but Edith builds a strong case for the allegation that Renata was the favored child, proven beyond a shadow of a doubt when Renata solves the mystery of a missing piece of yellow paper. Seeing her sister in possession of their mother's final epistle pushes Edith over the edge, into the land of moral quandary.
Mowbray, an absent-minded professor sort of gent, tries to mediate but is ill-equipped to tiptoe through the sibling rivalry minefield. In fact, he adds to the enmity by falling under Renata's spell without knowing that Edith has set her cap for the eligible widower. Fearing that his camaraderie with her sister portends trouble for her, Edith invites a local antiques dealer to view the collection on the sly. Fabian Hill (Anthony Newfield) is a charming former actor who appears to be taken with Edith nearly as much as he is with the antiques and offers his services, in more ways than one.
Newfield is smooth on the surface, but he doesn't try to hide his true self. As soon as Hill tells Edith that he used to be an actor, there's a strong suggestion that he's unctuous underneath. However, his honest dishonesty is actually refreshing in this foursome; nobody else behaves in total accordance with whom they proclaim themselves to be. Hill may be bad, but at least he's consistent. Lyman squeezes out little bits of humor and personality from his character, like getting the last toothpaste from the tube. Consider it a master class as the actor's gestures and expressions make Mowbray worth watching, even though he is someone we've all seen before. Tanner and La Fortune are a study in contrasts and play off each other very well. Tanner must convey most of Edith's thoughts and feelings through her tone of voice and her stiff upper lip. She feeds us a lot of information via one-sided telephone conversations and spends large blocks of time seated with her hands in her lap. La Fortune morphs from a blowzy, shuffling, smoke-spewing viper to a well-coiffed, charming femme fatale and successfully portrays the two sides of her character. Director Charles Towers finds the right pace to let the comedy land without losing any of the drama.
One can understand that Edith feels like a prisoner in the room as designed by Bill Clarke. It is long and narrow with a low ceiling and every surface harbors an item from the mother's collection. Lighting designer Jeff Adelberg keeps things somewhat dim and there is an aura of greyness that mirrors the emotional atmosphere. Arthur Oliver's costumes help to define the characters with Edith attired in black, Renata in a colorful kimono or striking red cocktail dress, Charles in tweeds, and Fabian in a stylish suit draped with a scarf. Sound design is by Jason E. Weber and scene changes are accompanied by lovely musical interludes.
Harwood wisely chooses a common situation to test his characters and to engage the audience. Every one of us could argue for or against the equal disposition of the spoils. One view is that children should be treated the same, regardless of their circumstances. Alternatively, one might think that the dutiful daughter deserves recompense, while the wealthy, good-for-nothing sister warrants less. However, the playwright is most interested in examining character vis-à-vis honesty and integrity. Does it have to be black and white, or can there be shades of grey? Do you have to do the right thing in every situation to be a good person? Is there only one right thing anyway? Harwood doesn't give a definitive answer, but the audience might be equally divided on that one.
Equally Divided, performances through March 9, 2014, at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, Massachusetts; Box Office 978-654-4678 or www.mrt.org. Written by Ronald Harwood, Directed by Charles Towers; Scenic Designer, Bill Clarke; Costume Designer, Arthur Oliver; Lighting Designer, Jeff Adelberg; Sound Designer, Jason E. Weber; Stage Manager, Bree Sherry; Assistant Stage Manager, Peter Crewe Cast: Felicity La Fortune, Will Lyman, Anthony Newfield, Jill Tanner