The Cassilis Engagement
When you see this show (and you really should), be gentlefor the first five or ten minutes, anyway. The opening scene threatens to turn into a carbon-copy of The Importance of Being Earnest, with a dowager-enforcer glowering at the latest developments, like a Lady Augusta Bracknell. And she just happens to have a close male relative named Algernon. But it's not long before the resemblance ends and St. John Hankin's zippy 1907 comedy takes on a delightful identity all its own.
Not surprisingly, Cassilis was written about twelve years after Oscar Wilde's Earnest. But it's also a sort of "backwards Pygmalion," as you'll see in a moment, coming about six years before George Bernard Shaw's best-known comedy of manners. And that's surprising, because today's audiences might guess that Hankin simply borrowed from Shaw's classic, as well. But it was Pygmalion that followed Cassilis, and Shaw who lamented Hankin's tragic death, calling it a "public calamity." Cassilis doesn't have the mind-bending satire of Earnest nor (particularly) aspire to the social justice of Pygmalion, but thanks partly to Act Inc's well-orchestrated efforts, it certainly has a great, light comedic tone that eluded Shaw in his writing.
In the production at hand, Liz Hopefl is the noble and gracious Mrs. Cassilis, whose son has caused a stir by engaging himself to a girl of doubtful background. That girl, Ethel Borridge (played slyly and skillfully by Emily Backer), brings her outrageous mother out to the Cassilis' country home for a week's stay, and machinations ensue, amidst a continuous culture clash. Mrs. Cassilis sets her bonnet on letting Ethel disprove her own suitability (the opposite of Pygmalion, where they try to pass a flower girl off as a duchess). And Mrs. Cassilis gets plenty of help in making her case from Ethel's Cockney mother, played beautifully by Teresa Doggett. Just try to imagine the pathetic Brenda Blethyn of the film Secrets and Lies in a terrible 1907 carriage-crash with the raunchy, uncontrollable Brenda Blethyn of a later film, Little Voice, and you begin to get the picture of Ms. Doggett in the role of a proto (distaff) Alfred Doolittle. Her dithering, demented laugh and her frequent slip-ups in proper society are a wonder to behold.
Ms. Hopefl, as always, is perfection: dancing back and forth between style and naturalism with complete control, and daring to grow fierce and fiery when she's plotting in secret, with her fainthearted friend (the very fine Eleanor Mullin). Wes Cannon is the naive son, under the spell of the young Ms. Borridge, and initially he's at his best when pulled into the orbit of one of the women he lovesthough he grows splendidly as a performer as the play goes on. Donna Weinsting, who deservedly gets her share of leading roles all over town, is on and off, now and then, as the Lady Bracknell character; and Sabra Sellers is adorable as the caste-appropriate girl young Cassilis should be marrying, of course. It's almost ridiculous to talk about the plot, because all the glory of the piece is achieved through style. Lots and lots of style.
Rob Grumich directs, prompting naturalism to the fore at nearly all times. But he also knows the Act Inc racket, as wellwhich is the only little thing I'd complain about, perhaps. I'm talking about the number of visual "takes," in this, and most Act Inc comedies through the years (and the heartwarming group now celebrates its 30th charming, costumed season). The regular ladies of this company are all known for their comical reactions, and they do them splendidly. You might call it a specialty. In fact, you might call it a mania. But I love style well-done, so I'll politely suggest that they could reduce the number of non-verbal "reactions" by a mere ten percent, if possible. Tim Grumich as the aforementioned Algernon, Mr. Cannon as the young Cassilis and Ms. Sellers as his childhood friend, are all perfectly natural throughout, which is a great relief. So are Colin Nichols and Marilyn Bass-Hayes as the local cleric and his oft-startled wife. And Ms. Hopefl avoids these takes (if memory serves) altogether. But maybe it's no big deal, to be "mugged" so many times in a darkened theater like this. Certainly it doesn't hurt the pace, which is remarkable, even for a nearly two-and-a-half hour show. It's just a little bit out of control. Which is normal for this admirable troupe, and (I guess) a part of their long-lived, eccentric charm.
Through June 28, 2010, at the black-box theater on the campus of Fontbonne University, on Big Bend Blvd., just south of Forsythe. For information, visit the website at www.actinc.biz.
Photo by John C. Lamb