The Constant Wife

Produced by Olney Theatre

Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson

constant wife

Michael McKenzie as John Middleton, F.R.C.S. and Ashley West as Marie-Louise Durham

The Constant Wife at Olney Theater is best savored as a rich delicacy enjoyed over a full evening, a change in pace from the quickie snacks of today’s fare. W. Somerset Maugham (yes, that one) takes his time setting up the characters, and although the mid-section drags a little rehashing what had already been laid out with crystal clarity, it’s still refreshing to sit back and bask in the mood and setting of another period in time. Before reality T.V. there were comedies and dramas such as The Constant Wife, (set in the 1920′s) that allowed one to peer through the heavy draped curtains of the upper crust and glimpse the familiar and common elements that make us all tick.

Per the title of this “drawing room comedy,” the story pivots around a loyal wife whose prestigious husband may or may not be having an affair. If the premise sounds intriguingly familiar, that’s the timeless appeal of The Constant Wife. The women banter about mundane aspects of their lives, shop for household goods, strike poses in glamorous attire, and reflect good breeding and polished deportment— was Constance Middleton an original “Desperate Housewife?” But then, as the plot thickens, the theme song might well be Aretha Franklin’s “Who’s Zooming Who?” In a style that Artistic Director Jim Petosa describes as combining George Bernard Shaw’s social provocations with Oscar Wilde’s language, Maugham’s razor sharp wit explores social issues of marriage and fidelity, women’s places and roles, financial independence, infatuation, dalliances and love, all within the confines of an elegant parlor. It’s enough to make you go, hmmmmm.

The all-star ensemble starts with the perfectly cast Julie-Ann Elliot as Constance, who as was seen in Hedda Gabler, can do more with a flashing glance, a beguiling and demure smile, and slight gestures than a slew of trophy winners– her time has definitely come for Helen Hayes consideration. Is Constance the innocent canary who needs protection or the smiling cat that just ate it? Elliot’s Constance has an unwavering demeanor, and an engaging delivery that keeps you guessing to the end. She is ably supported by Michael McKenzie playing her surgeon husband with confidence, verve and impeccable timing. When tables turn and he has to come to grips with his wife’s growing independence and self-actualization, he sputters and turns on a spit with baleful expressions of utter helplessness in facing loss of control, with absolute gleeful results. Equally supportive is John Wodja who portrays the potential paramour with loving sincerity.

The rest of the cast is also star-studded, starting with Nancy Robinette in her first Olney appearance (hopefully not her last), whose character is reminiscent of her recent role in The Beaux Stratagem at The Shakespeare Theater, only here, she’s allowed to be more mellow and laid-back, in reacting mode as the Mother with plenty to say to her two headstrong daughters. Allyson Currin has a playful spin as the sister who can barely contain herself with gossip and newsy tidbits, and Helen Hedman is rock-solid in a small yet meaty role as an interior decorator of independent means, showing what can be done with a couple of entrances and a smattering of lines–it’s a master class. The entire ensemble is so good, kudos to John Going, director, that on press night when James Slaughter who plays the cuckolded husband was in a minor car accident and could not go on, the show did, with the producing director Brad Watkins playing the part with script in hand–they didn’t miss a beat. Watkins got extra applause for hitting the boards on a moment’s notice, thinking fast on his feet and his earnest portrayal, proving that theater is about giving it all you’ve got. They did, and we’re all the better for it.

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