The Winslow Boy
Also see Richard's review of Or,
We all know of the public spectacles surrounding Honey Boo-Boo, and Elian Gonzalezand going back even before that to the cases of the Lindbergh Baby, and Bobby Franks (the victim of Leopold and Loeb): their names are also the names of great scandals, of one kind or another. Go back all the way to the little princes of Richard III or Abraham and Isaac, or to Medea, if you want to cover all the bases.
The Winslow Boy is all that, in its own way. It also happens to be one of those very famous plays I'd never seen before. But the history of modern theater is dotted with reviews by critics who've invariably been swept-up in Terrence Rattigan's 1946 drama. And I never really understood why, till now.
Powerful emotions creep up on us, like extra characters lurking on stage at every moment. And we begin to realize that every incident of fate is like a card in the hands of an expert dealerwhere failure or success and love or heartbreak all go shuffling by too fast to see, until our own card is thrown down with a dark, final flourish.
Steven Woolf, Artistic Director of this most prestigious theater in Saint Louis, holds all the cards as director of the play. And with a perfectly cast group of actors he creates a production of pure magnificence. The moments of joy are beautifully polished, though balanced by something tangy and bitter about the steady erosion within the Winslow family, through humiliation and stubbornness and the starkest irony.
But of course we're over a hundred years beyond the time of act one now. And the opening bit of music, and the music between scenes, immediately suggests a dowdy old BBC theater-for-television production. There's even something almost subconsciously ridiculous about the sight of all these pre-World War I British "types" gliding through the parlor doors, one after another. But our sardonic, modern view of "times gone by" evaporates as tensions rise.
John Ezell's set has all the grandeur of the British Empire. And it's quietly devastating to see the cost the Winslows pay, searching for justice. Their home is denuded of expensive sea-faring props and paintings, after a brilliant lawyer is hired to defend the youngest on charges of theft. Throughout the ordeal their collective doom could be viewed as the end of Empire in miniature.
The charge of thievery has led to the boy's expulsion from a Royal Naval academyso, in essence, one small banker's family is also taking on the whole of the Admiralty. And the uproar in the press and the House of Commons becomes overwhelming. Jay Stalder is excellent as the accused, arriving just before the rest of the family gets home from church.
It would take pages and pages to describe every event where impending disasters unspool in your own mind, before anyone confesses to any actual worry up there on stage. Suffice it to say Jeff Hayenga is immaculate as the loving father and philosopher king of the piece. And Carol Schultz is plainspoken and kind as the mother. Both show heartrending traces of ruin as the scandal wears on.
I should probably apologize for referring to the characters as "types." Each actor gradually brings his or her role intriguingly to life, whether it's Hunter Canning as the carefree oldest son, introducing ragtime into the highly respectable Winslow household, or William Connell wrestling with his loyalties to the Winslow daughter (the commanding but adorable Kathleen Wise).
Local favorite Peggy Billo is great throughout (as the maid), but has an especially riveting speech near the end, recounting the final moments of a tumultuous courtroom scene. And Michael James Reed is heartbreaking as a 19th century man coming to grips with the post-Victorian era.
Jay Stratton sails in majestically, like some Dickensian figure in an opera cape, or the most fearsome raven of the night, as a high-powered lawyer. In his first two or three scenes, he's weirdly funnya sort of walking sneerbut (within the constraints of 1912-1914 English propriety) he finally develops a deeper humanity, in spite of a shockingly strident manner, and an appallingly huge intellect.
Absolutely consuming and remarkable overall.
Through March 8, 2015, on the Browning Mainstage at the Loretto-Hilton center, 130 Edgar Rd., on the campus of Webster University. For more information visit www.repstl.org.
The Players (in order of appearance)
Behind The Scenes