For all the imposing bang of Thomas Stearns Eliot’s blasts of modern poetry (The Wasteland, Four Quartets), his “drawing-room” plays, while also flush with important, complex ideas, tend to the whimper. This is true of Eliot’s last, the rarely performed The Elder Statesman, an autumnal rumination on one’s life lived, currently at Washington Stage Guild.
The production completes the Eliot canon for the group, and under the direction of Bill Largess, the dedicated theater company deserves a great deal of appreciation for their inextinguishable effort to tackle difficult and neglected works, often think-pieces that challenge audiences. But Statesman only buzzes your brain. It fails to liberate song from your heart. It doesn’t satisfy the soul as the best theater does.
The play’s theme is know thyself, and the truth shall set you free. Echoing the ancient Greek Oedipus at Colonus, Eliot’s focus is the aged politician and recently retired Lord Claverton, who begins the play grumpily thumbing through his suddenly unnecessary appointment book.
Like the Greek hero’s final days answering to the Furies, Claverton will embark on an inward, redemptive journey through his past, coming to terms with actions, decisions and even identities he’s taken during the pageant of his life. Characteristic of Eliot, the play is ripe with profound motifs imbued with Classic and Christian messages: that one’s past is inescapable; we wear masks and play false roles throughout our lives, even in front of the ones we love most; forgiveness and contrition are powerful levies unbarring the path to salvation.
What small drama exists in the play comes from the visitors, or “ghosts” of conscience that drop in on Claverton to break up the foundations of his fabricated self-architecture just as the time of final atonement is near.
The slimy Federico Gomez (Robert Leembruggen) of the Central American Republic of San Marcos and the sickly-sweet, passive-aggressive, one-time chanteuse Maisie Montjoy (now the more respectable Mrs. Carghill, played by Jewell Robinson), both return to resurrect Claverton’s deeply buried demons.
Through all of this, the great public man harbors a supreme love for his daughter Monica (Kelly Renee Armstrong), his devoted Antigone, whose taking of confession will unlock the way forward for him.
John Dow is fine as Claverton in the play’s early scenes depicting the man coming to grips with retirement and reacting to the more-comically bizarre Gomez, Carghill and Mrs. Piggot (Lynn Steinmetz), an eccentric nursing home matron tasked with the typical comic relief.
But in the play’s third and final act, when the audience really needs to witness some emoting to rise above the tedious expository denouement that resolves all—Eliot’s structural reverence of the classical form—Dow goes flat, his lines sounding more like recitation than passion.
I imagine that Eliot’s verse is difficult to translate into speech real people would express, but as it is, I was only able to take away the ideas despite the awkward delivery and fighting it every inch of the way. At two and a half hours, I’m not sure how many others would want to make the effort.
The Elder Statesman
Closes May 19, 2013
Washington Stage Guild
Undercroft Theatre, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church
900 Massachusetts Avenue, NW,
2 hours, 30 minutes, including two 10 minute intermissions.
Tickets: $40 – $50
Thursdays thru Sundays
Before the stultifying final act, there actually is a bit of tension and some humor. The best act is the first, in large part due to Robert Leembruggen’s edgy, menacing portrayal of Gomez. Leembruggen’s predacious entrance immediately upends the slight English manners scene around the taking of tea which commences the play.
His dilatory spreading of cloud over Claverton’s kingdom is delivered with a sinister finesse, just barely concealing a lifetime of anger and humiliation. Gomez’s revelation is the high water mark of the play’s plotting; unfortunately it comes in the first act.
Act two takes on a high-comic tone, somewhat out of place with the rest of the play, but don’t expect anything uproarious, as this is a stiflingly buttoned-up comedy after all. It must have seemed old fashioned to some even in 1958. If not, it was on the historical brink of being considered so.
A couple of performers stand out: In the striking image of the young Eliot himself, Kevin Hasser is pitch perfect as Charles Hemington, the young barrister and Monica’s suitor.
Michael Avolio, whose booming voice and exacting stage presence never fails to leave an impression, cuts a swath here in two roles, as Claverton’s petulant, wayward son Michael and—in a spot-on reincarnated Peter Sellers bit—the butler Lambert.
In the end, I dare say there’s a reason Eliot is not well known for his plays. His full-throated, hopeful swansong, The Elder Statesman, cerebral to a fault, is a curiosity for completists only.
The Elder Statesman by T.S. Eliot. Directed by Bill Largess. Featuring Kelly Renee Armstrong, Kevin Hasser, Michael Avolio, John Dow, Robert Leembruggen, Lynn Steinmetz and Jewell Robinson. Setting by Kirk Kristlibas. Lighting by Marianne Meadows. Costumes by Sigrid Johannesdottir. Sound by Frank DiSalvo Jr. Produced by Washington Stage Guild. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.