Friday, March 21, 2008

Orange Tree Unchained

Last week I also found the time to drift over to Richmond for a preview of the new show at the Orange Tree. It was a weekday matinee and, as a result, I suspect I was the youngest person in the audience by some wide margin. The couple next to me had quite an interval picnic going on with cling-film wrapped sandwiches and bags of crisps and I was even able to notch up my first sighting of a thermos flask in quite some time.

The Orange Tree’s current production is Chains of Dew, part of a season of neglected work by woman writers. It was written in 1922 by American playwright Susan Glaspell (No? Me neither, though apparently she won a Pulitzer in her day) and has gone unperformed since its original production.

Things begin in a New York apartment where Seymore Standish, a poet from the Mid West, is visiting his radical friends, Nora, a birth control campaigner with fashionable bobbed hair, and Leon, a liberal newspaper editor. Seymore bemoans the constraints of his conservative existence back home in Bluff City where his creativity is stifled by a respectable job, a sweet, unworldly wife, and the countless social obligations that come from being a man of standing in a town such as his. The first scene didn’t bode well. It took a good, long while to establish the characters and felt rather static and uneasy. Wavering accents amongst the cast didn’t help matters, and the scene could have been a good deal tauter and shorter if they’d snipped out some lengthy and repetitive business with a mimeograph machine.

The true meat of the comedy only revealed itself when Glaspell shows us Seymore on his home turf and we see that, for all his protests, he is rather content with his straight-laced life, composed as it is of bridge games, church meetings and rounds of golf. So when Nora and Leon show up in Bluff City, Seymore is understandably distraught to see these two separate aspects of his life collide. His sophisticated, self-assured New York set are as out of place in his home town as it is possible to be. They are very keen to liberate Seymore, to free his inner artist from the shackles of respectability, oblivious to the fact that he is quite happy as he is. Instead it is his wife, Diantha – though he insists on calling her Dotty and casually dismissing her every attempt to better herself – who is excited by their arrival, sensing a chance at liberation.

Though these later scenes are very funny, Glaspell’s play is more than just a comedy of two worlds colliding; there is anger at its heart, a bitter undercurrent. She is aware that it will take more than just a few daring hair cuts to execute true social change. And though Seymore’s wife is able to taste the possibility of a new existence, Glaspell recognises that things don’t change as easily as that. A taste of freedom is all Diantha gets and the play ends on something of a downbeat note.

The ensemble cast work well together and David Annen plays Seymore with a good dash of charisma and makes him into something more than just a self-absorbed hypocrite. I was also very taken with Helen Ryan’s performance as Seymore’s wise and wonderful mother.

Fans of heavy-handed symbolism will enjoy the repeated references to a picture of the Sistine Madonna, which is removed from its hook when Diantha first meets Seymore's friends – and then later rehung. But the play was, once it hit its stride, something of a joy: poignant and perceptive, and very entertaining with it.

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