10 July 2003: Coward, Private Lives

Pioneer Valley Summer Theatre, in residence at the Willliston Northampton School, in Easthampton, Massachusetts. $29.50

Having seen Maggie Smith as Amanda some years ago is an indelible memory for me: the long “take” she executed in Act I on suddenly recognizing her former husband Elyot on the porch of the hotel room opposite hers, by walk­ing the entire length of the porch, downstage, will live forever in my recol­lection. It’s unfair to compare Maggie Smith with any other actress, however accomp­lished, in the role. That said, this is a rather good, very well acted production of a play that is one of Coward’s best and an almost sure-fire choice for summer theatre producers: two settings which can be mocked up from one, as is done here, and the opportunity to get two very good if aging actors for the two central roles — the Noel Coward – Gertrude Lawrence pairing, a transfer onto the stage of a mercurial friendship with added erotic overtones. High audience recognition here.

The direction is very fast-paced and does the play justice. Williams knows how to make the action of a somewhat farcical comedy fluid and clear, though he misses the few opportunities for reflection (What?! In a Coward comedy? Can the man be serious?) — Yes, reflection in the script, as when Amanda and Elyot discuss their belief — or the lack of it — in heaven and hell (indicated, in true Coward throwaway fashion, by Elyot’s thumb gesturing “up there” and then “down there”). Coward is alive to these troubling questions lurking in the liminal space at the edge of the play, and directors and actors should be too.

Phil Kilbourne and Sara Whitcomb are really too old for the Elyot and Mandy — “long in the tooth” is a phrase that comes to mind — and there are far more than the stated “seven” years separating Elyot from his ravishing but inexper­ienced, twenty-three-year-old new bride, Sybil. Well, they just laugh it off and plunge in at full throttle. The Victor — Laurence Olivier’s original part — is played in a not-quite huggable, stuffy Teddy Bear manner by Buzz Roddy. Kilbourne, Whitcomb, and Roddy are the Equity members of the cast; Tracee Chimo, the Sybil, certainly ought to be, and may just now be piling up enough credits to enter that charmed circle. She seems not much older, if at all, than Sybil’s fictional age, and she is at once delectable and sensuous and the perfect soubrette opposite for the leading-lady role of Amanda. You can understand why Elyot wants to go back to Mandy, the only woman who has ever stood up to his impossible, self-serving demands for unlimited ego-stroking and verbal sparring; all the same, if I had just gotten married to Sybil, I would’ve stuck around a good bit longer to enjoy her flashing-eyed intimate company. Oh, what you have to give up, sometimes, to get what you really want.

PVST, using the Williston School theatre for the first time this summer after some years at Mount Holyoke, has found a very nice, congenial space, a thrust stage that doesn’t require the scenic demands of a proscenium-and-apron stage. They are mounting no fewer than eight plays this summer, each running only one week, for five performances. This is my first experience of them altogether. I’m inclined to go back for more. (They are also running a children’s day-time series. Very ambitious.)


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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