Really, this is a play about disillusionment. Set designer Thomas Lynch vividly brings us to the Gulf of Mexico in 1949 and the Tuckerman resort home. The stage sprawls with walls, doorways, various openings, a staircase - and great depth. The touches are there: a spinning ceiling fan and a hanging chandelier. Shades of blue, green, and gray. General Benjamin Griggs (Brian Kerwin) wishes to divorce his loud, nervous wife Rose (Maryann Plunkett), who seeks to party. Controlling the action and dialogue at the beginning of each of three acts is the distinguished, veteran actor Elizabeth Franz who, as Mary Ellis, a still perceptive matriarch, punctuates the entire three hours with her caustic wit.
Nick Denery (John Benjamin Hickey) is returning after four decades to a place of his youth. His wife Nina (Jessica Hecht) is obviously disgusted that her husband cannot finish even one painting. For his part, he revisits a house owned by Constance Tuckerman (Allison Janney), his former lover. Constance is fairly bland but she is excited to be seeing a man to whom she was once engaged. Janney (of The West Wing) does a fine job but the role is limited.
Very much at the center of this production is appealing Sophie Tuckerman (Mamie Gummer), whom Constance extracted from France during the Second World War. Sophie takes care of the house for her Aunt Constance and, late in the play, must deal with a quite drunken Nick who ends up entangled with her upon the sofa she utilizes as a bed. Sophie speaks with a carefully practiced accent. For those who realize that, in real life, Meryl Streep is the lovely Ms. Gummer's mother, Sophie's opening words are a revelation. After all, Meryl Streep has been known for her brilliant mastery of dialect ranging back, for example, to Sophie's Choice. Say this: Mamie Gummer is an appealing, talented young actress who is adept with her current role, which is both difficult and pivotal. She is poised and attentive to detail. Her turn is exemplary.
Other characters situated within Hellman's lengthy drama include Edward Crossman (Rufus Collins); the German au pair Hilda (Brooke Parks); Frederick Ellis (Eric Murdoch), involved unhappily with Sophie; and Frederick's mother, Carrie (Cynthia Mace), who is a widow.
For the first two acts, the theatergoer will wonder whether these characters will be able to drive the plot forward. During the final thirty minutes, however, Hellman's ability to speak truth through those she sculpts adds necessary drama.
It might surprise more than a few patrons that the playwright has written a number of zinging and/or ribald lines for Mary Ellis (Franz), in her seventies and a bit frail. When Mrs. Ellis discovers Nick the morning after he has had far too much to drink, she says, "Shall I wake your wife and see if she can locate Julie for you, or would you rather be cremated here? Get up, Mr. Denery." Franz, who won the Tony Award for her Broadway performance in Death of a Salesman never rushes her dialogue. She holds her lines a beat, delivering them with precision and zest. Her comic timing, too, is superb. Hickey, with impressive credits on and off Broadway, is versatile and convincing as a conflicted man in midlife who is uncertain about his future.
Director David Jones provides distinctive orchestration for a rich, period-piece presentation of The Autumn Garden. Hellman has written searing dramas such as The Children's Hour, The Little Foxes, The Little Foxes, and Watch on the Rhine. The Autumn Garden examines life as is. The conflict between characters is real rather than melodramatic. The scenes are tense rather than explosive as Hellman steers clear of shock. There are moments of sadness. Nick once painted Constance when they were both young and, perhaps, in love. That was then. The epoch has shifted and he tries, again, to capture her essence on canvas. Hellman wrote the play when she was forty-something. It is a mature piece and one must stay with it to appreciate the play. The Williamstown production honors her talent.
Williamstown is very much a theater smorgasbord during mid-August. Currently, Kathleen Turner directs Sarah Paulson, Lily Rabe and others in Crimes of the Heart on the Nikos Stage. Roger Rees, festival artistic director stars in The Physicists on Center Stage.
The Autumn Garden continues at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts, through August 26th. For ticket and schedule information, visit wtfestival.org or call (413) 597-3400.
- Fred Sokol