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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Arthur Wing Pinero's Trelawny of the Wells
Reset in Late Victorian London

Trelawny
Nisi Sturgis and Caralyn Kozlowski
Sir Arthur Wing Pinero's love letter to the English theatre, Trelawny of the Wells, seems to be in danger of becoming unknown to American audiences more than a century after it made its debut in London in 1898. Thus, it was with gratitude and high anticipation that I was looking forward to its revival by Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey as the final production of its highly successful 50th anniversary season. As it turns out, this Trelawny is benignly pleasing, occasionally hilarious, nicely acted, and a trifle languorous. It might even be described as a must-see for dedicated, literate theatergoers as well as those seeking the kind of civilized, refined entertainment which is becoming difficult to find in a culture which has largely ceased to embrace such qualities. However, it is not the joyous, life affirming, totally beguiling theatrical triumph which Trelawny is still capable of providing.

The delightfully high spirited 19-year-old ingιnue Rose Trelawny is the most popular star of the struggling London Bagnigge Wells (a stand-in for the actual Sadler's Wells) theatre company. Rose has fallen in love with a boyish, stage door Johnny suitor, Arthur Gower, whom she is planning to marry. At the insistence of Arthur's aristocratic guardians, his grandfather and great aunt Sir William Gower and his sister Miss Trafalgar Gower, Rose has "quietly" withdrawn from the Wells, giving up acting entirely. Furthermore, in order to demonstrate to Sir William that she is a suitable match for Arthur, capable of proper social behavior, Rose is required to move into their staid Cavendish Square house to live with them. The second of four scenes depicting Rose's situation there is far and away the funniest, most broadly played one in this production.

Rose finds living with the stuffy and stifling Gowers unbearable. (When he observes Rose sitting on the floor after dinner, Sir William is nonplussed. "What are ye upon the floor for, my dear. Have we no cheers? Do we lack cheers, Trafalgar?") Finally, at wit's end, she bolts from the house to return to being the loved and admired "Trelawny of the Wells".

Upon her return to the Wells, Rose finds that her time on Cavendish Square has robbed her of the effervescent joie de vivre which made her such a delight to Wells audiences. The Wells is in financial trouble, and Trelawny, after struggling to get by on a reduced salary, is terminated from the Wells.

Pinero has peopled his self-described "comedietta" (light farcical comedy) with eighteen clearly defined, invariably amusing "theatrical" and "non-theatrical" folk. However, there is one of them who is less stylized and comedic than all of the others. I speak of Tom Wrench, a utility actor with the Wells who is an incipient playwright. Wrench is fed up with the light, contrived, broadly and fancifully overacted plays which are the bread and butter of London theatre. Wrench has written a more realistic and "serious" play that he wants to produce starring Rose Trelawny. If someone can be found to provide funding to produce the play, it could well be the now wired-to-reality Rose's ticket to success.

The STNJ Trelawny of the Wells has been reset (and costumed) in the late Victorian era in which it was originally produced. Author Arthur Wing Pinero not only set his play 35 years later, but he was specific and adamant about it being performed that way. "The costumes and scenic decoration of this little play should follow, to the closest detail, the mode of the early Sixties—the period, in dress, of crinoline and the peg-top trouser ... No attempt should be made to modify such fashions in illustration ..."

For Trelawny celebrates a time in English theatre history when the introduction and success of more realistic and more realistically acted plays moved the English stage away from the dominance of light hearted, very broadly acted farces, and similarly exaggerated melodramatic Shakespeare. In fact, the character Tom Wrench was widely recognized to have been based on real life playwright Tom Robinson, the pioneer of "domestic realism." Now, Pinero most often wrote in the style of Robinson (i.e., The Second Mrs. Tanqueray). However, Trelawny is largely a throwback to the broad, lighthearted comedies of Pinero's youth. It is a valentine to the English theatre, and to the slapstick comedies and the more realistic domestic dramas which supplanted them, and to the artists who populated them.

Director Bonnie J. Monte has directed a well-rounded, enthusiastic ensemble performance featuring a large portion of her estimable repertory company. On stage are 13 actors performing 21 roles (four actors play two roles, and two perform three roles each). Most noteworthy are Edmond Genest as the snooty Sir William Matt Sullivan, who is hilarious as the green grocer-caterer Mr. Ablett (one of his three roles). Nisi Sturgis is certainly a charming Rose Trelawny. Lacking is the scintillating star turn that could make us love Rose.

This Trelawny of the 'Wells' (as the title was written originally) could use more of the individualized, richly comic and exaggerated detail that can make it an exhilarating, delightfully loveable and over the top delight. Prancing around in the ridiculously overly ornate 1860s clothing might have contributed to such a tone. Much too much of the production is played upstage which, along with fast paced dialogue, too often mutes the rich and delightfully humorous delight in the detail of the many characters. Trelawny needs hammy star turns more than drawing room comedy ensemble performances.

As co-scenic designers, Bonnie J. Monte and Anita Tripathi Easterling make the most of the resources available to them. In the current fiscal climate facing regional theaters throughout the nation, that is no small compliment. Hugh Hanson's late Victorian era costumes are excellent right down to providing one for Mrs. Mossop, the lodging house owner which takes into account Pinero's specification of her religious/ethnic background.

Even a less than top drawer Trelawny of the Wells makes for a pleasantly entertaining evening in the theatre. It provides a worthy, appropriately themed finale for the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's strong 50th anniversary season. Long may STNJ continue to prosper.

Trelawny of the Wells continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday 7:30 PM; Thursday, Friday and Saturday 8 PM / Matinees: Saturday and Sunday 8 PM) through December 30, 2012, at at the F. M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue at Lancaster Road, Madison, New Jersey 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600; online: www.ShakespeareNJ.org.

Trelawny of the Wells by Sir Arthur Wing Pinero; directed by Bonnie J. Monte

Theatrical Folk:

Members of the Bagnigge-Wells Theatre:
Tom Wrench……………………………………………………..John Patrick Hayden
James Tefler…………………………………………………………………..John Mohr
Ferdinand Gadd……………………………………………………………...Jon Barker
Augustus Colpoys……………………………………………………….Connor Carew
Mrs. Telfer (Miss Violet Sylvester)…………………………….Elizabeth Shepherd
Avonia Bunn…………………………………………………………………..Rachel Fox
Rose Trelawny……………………………………………………………….Nisi Sturgis
Imogen Parrott of the Royal Olympic Theatre………………..Caralyn Kozlowski
O'Dwyer, prompter at Pantheon Theatre…………………………...Connor Carew
Mr. Denzil of the Pantheon Theatre……………………………………..Matt Sullivan
Miss Brewster of the Pantheon Theatre………………………………..Erica Knight
Hall-keeper at the Pantheon Theatre……………………………………..Jon Barker

Non-Theatrical Folk:

Sir William Gower……………………………………………………….Edmond Genest
Arthur Gower, his grandson…………………………………………Jordan Coughtry
Clara De Foenix, his granddaughter……………………………………..Erica Knight
Miss Trafalgar Gower, his sister…………………………………....Jennifer Harmon
Captain De Foenix, Clara's husband……………………………………..Matt Sullivan
Mrs. Mossop……………………………………………………………...Jennifer Harmon
Mr. Ablett……………………………………………………………………….Matt Sullivan
Sarah…………………………………………………………………………….Erica Knight
Charles……………………………………………………………………….Connor Carew


Be sure to Check the current schedule for theatre in New Jersey


Photo: Gerry Goodstein


- Bob Rendell



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