The Autumn Garden
Hellman called The Autumn Garden her favorite play, and its quiet interplay of memories and regret is far from the rousing melodrama of her best-known play, The Little Foxes. On the downside, the Chekhovian sense of wasted lives and unrequited love expressed here needs more strong characterizations than Mazzola has managed to draw out of his cast.
The setting is a summer house on the Gulf of Mexico; the year is 1949, soon enough after World War II that the wounds are still fresh. As a child, Constance Tuckerman (Deborah Rinn Critzer) invited her friends to spend their summers in the house owned by her family; now, Constance has been forced by financial problems to open the house to paying guests, many of whom are her friends from long ago.
The dramatic conflict comes from the arrival at the house of Nicholas Denery (Jim Jorgensen), Constance’s youthful love and now a somewhat successful painter, and his tightly wound, elegant wife, Nina (Mary McGowan). The other guests are Ned Crossman (William Aitken), a genteel alcoholic; a war hero, Gen. Benjamin Griggs (Mark Lee Adams), and his flighty Southern-belle wife, Rose (Annie Houston); and wealthy Carrie Ellis (Jan Boulet), with her redoubtable mother-in-law Mary (Linda High) and her “sensitive” son Frederick (Joshua Drew). Constance also has a companion, her late brother’s daughter Sophie (Maura Stadem), who grew up in France during the German occupation and is trying to start a new life in America.
The interplay among the characters is supposed to speak of lost hopes: the marriages are uncomfortable, the future uncertain. Nick’s presence has a magnetic effect on all the women in the house (except the no-nonsense Mary), while the easier-going Ned and Ben persuade Nina to take her hair down (in this case, literally) and disappear for a day.
Other difficulties abound just below the surface. Ben prefers to keep to himself, while the aging Rose – who is the mother of adult children – treats the world with an inappropriate coquettishness. Sophie is the linchpin: the older people project their unfulfilled ambitions onto her, to the extent of trying to engineer a marriage between her and Frederick although he is, euphemistically stated, not the “marrying kind.” Nick’s drunken appeal to Sophie sets the climactic action of the play into motion, but behavior that might have seemed irresponsible but acceptable 50 years ago now comes across as just creepy.
On the whole, the women in the cast give more defined and colorful performances than the men. High steals every scene she’s in, and McGowan ably reveals the underpinnings of her calm reserve. However, Jorgensen lacks the sort of dominating charm that would justify his place in this small community, and Aitken and Adams likewise speak the lines but bring little specificity to their roles.
American Century Theatre