By Tim Treanor
The Autumn Garden by Lillian Hellmen at The American Century Theater
Imagine, if you will, a roomful of morose men and women of late middle years. They are too old for optimism or other forms of self-deception, and so pass their time in reading, heavy drinking, and aiming barbed witticisms at each other. It is Louisiana, just after the second war. Into their midst returns a charmed figure from their youth – a stupendously gifted artist who has established a reputation in Europe. He, it turns out, is even worse – and worse off – than they: a bitter, controlling, smarmy lecher and a drunk. He spreads chaos to this listless house, and brings humiliation to people seemingly beyond humiliation. This is the long-forgotten Lillian Hellman play, The Autumn Garden. Hellman thought it was the best thing she ever wrote.
The American Century Theater is dedicated to breathing new life into the forgotten twentieth-century plays of great writers, and its handsome production represents a mighty effort to revive this one. Virtually everything about it, from the economical and highly suggestive set through the fine acting and even the excellent playbill, emphasizes the play’s strongest features: its good characterizations and strong dialogue. Ultimately, however, even American Century cannot alter the fact that this is a three-hour play which is simply loaded with exposition.
Constance Tuckerman (Deborah Rinn Critzer), the sole survivor of a family which was once financially comfortable, has turned their home into a sort of resort cum boarding-house. She runs it and staffs it with Sophie (Maura Stadem), the French daughter of Constance’s dead brother. Her guests are also members of her social set: Fred Ellis (Joshua Drew), Sophie’s unenthusiastic fiancée; Fred’s overindulgent mother Carrie (Jan Boulet) and acid-tongued grandmother Mary (Linda High); General Benjamin Griggs (Mark Lee Adams) and his childlike wife Rose (Annie Houston); and finally Ned Crossman (William Aitken), the honest, hard-drinking man she has spent most of her life loving in silent suffering.
When Nick Denery (Jim Jorgensen) and his wife Nina (Mary McGowan) arrive, it seems an opportunity for Constance to recapture the joy and promise of her youth, in which Nick once painted her portrait before leaving for Europe and fame. Within minutes, however, it is evident that Nick’s soul is even more desiccated than theirs. At his best, Nick is a simpering, flattering cad, careless of his effect on those around him. At other times – such as when he seeks to paint a second, contemporary portrait of Constance which makes her look old and haggard – he seems animated by principals of gratuitous meanness.
I will not set forth the details of the plot, since to do so would rob it of what suspense it has. I will say that this is the best I’ve ever seen Jim Jorgensen. Jorgensen, one of the area’s most active actors, has a wide range, but he has a special instinct for the special qualities that bad men have. His Nick seems to glide around the stage in a trail of his own slime, batting his eyes at elderly ladies, lowering his voice in false confidences, launching haphazard efforts at seduction in front of his wife and the astonished company. Although Nick is a man steeped in falseness, there is nothing false about Jorgensen’s performance. Every bit of this extraordinary character is recognizable and true.
The other particularly meaty role which Hellman wrote for this play was that of the fiancée’s nasty granny, Mary Ellis, and Linda High nails it. Hellman gifted the role with some extraordinarily funny lines, and High’s timing assures that she squeezes every laugh out of them. She never lets us forget, however, who she is – a woman at ease in the corridors of power, unafraid of making decisions or of putting the whip to her closest relatives, if necessary.
There is much other good work done, too. Adams and Aitken were particularly strong, both projecting great dignity into their characters despite the characters’ weaknesses. McGowan nicely underplays her role as Nick’s long-suffering wife, thus throwing Jorgensen’s accomplishments into higher relief.
Nonetheless, there are cobwebs in this play that even American Century’s vigorous staging can’t shake out. It was only moderately successful when originally produced – 101 showings over three months in 1951 – and it is not hard to guess why. Hellman has really stuffed four plays into The Autumn Garden. In addition to portraying the havoc Nick causes, the play details Fred and Sophie’s strangely undernourished engagement; the deteriorating relationship between General Griggs and his wife; and Ned’s and Constance’s wistful contact, now reduced to two weeks in Ned’s summer vacation. Hellman tucked into each of these plots as though armed with some sort of playwright’s checklist. Backgrounds are ruthlessly explained, (“What’s been going on?” Nick asks guilelessly early in Act One); conflicts are laid out on the table and every problem is resolved – pleasingly or not – in Act Three. Every character has an objective, although for most of them the objective seems to be getting away from everyone else – through sleep, the bottle, or the next train to New Orleans.
American Century Theater deserves our respect for reviving this play. Its strong production shows us what we missed – but also why we missed it.
The Autumn Garden will be performed March 16-April 15. Performances are Wednesday-Saturday evenings at 8 PM and 2:30 matinees on March 19, 26, April 2, 8 and 15. All performances are at Theater II, Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang Street, Arlington, Virginia 22206. Tickets including senior and student discounts are $23-29. Call 703-553-8782 for information, tickets or groups sales.