By A. R. Gurney
Produced by RepStage
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Mrs. Farnsworth now playing at Rep Stage in Columbia, is a clever if somewhat light-weight satire of fictionalized early “indiscretions” of the current Commander in Chief. The story unfolds in a creative writing class in New York City and the entire 90 minute spoof highlights the enormous power of the individual, his/her pen, and the increasing importance of the ever expanding, even omnipresent media. The play touches on issues that have been hashed out over the years (the controversial 2000 election, Iraq, etc), and while it doesn’t add much new or refreshing, the timing alone makes it a perfect fit for this political hotbed Washington D.C, told at an ideal time as the country lurches towards the 2008 election.
Mrs. Farnsworth (Helen Hedman) has taken a creative writing class to help her unleash the tale she’s kept tucked away for years, just months before the 2004 presidential election. Dressed in classic suit and pumps with stylish purse and matching shawl, she is prim and proper to the hilt-all she needs is a pill box hat for a perfect rendition of a 1950’s lady of leisure. Although she doesn’t have much written, she provides enough dirt about her so-called “fictional character” to shock and awe her teaching assistant and fellow classmates who adamantly encourage her continued efforts. Next enters her husband, Mr. Farnsworth (Mitchell Hébert), initially seen as villainous in obstructing the sordid truth from being exposed, but who then offers his own perspectives on what’s really happening, including possible lapses of reality in his wife’s mind. It is here where playwright A. R. Gurney is strongest in revealing a fully developed human character behind a sketchy description. Who is right or wrong, liberal or conservative, lying or telling the truth? The play illustrates that drawing the line of demarcation is simply not that simple, good and evil don’t fall neatly on one side or another, and the right thing does not come in binary codes or black and white.
A special bonus of this regional premiere is that it takes place in an actual classroom at Howard Community College, home of Rep Stage-it doesn’t get much better than that. Steven Carpenter’s direction takes full advantage of the limited, two dimensional lecture space involving the audience as part of the production. Hedman and Hébert are a winning combination with great chemistry and camaraderie, and Jason Schuchman is engaging as the excited and zealous young instructor.
Unfortunately, Gurney’s script doesn’t rise up to the level of the rest of the production. Some sections are more pedantic than necessary, especially towards the end, and the characters aren’t people on a journey as much as they are stock figures propped in place to state a position, or explain a cause, which Mrs. Farnsworth does a lot. Gurney’s attempts to make her fully dimensional are laudable but not totally effective, although her transitioning to being comfortable with her own first name rather than hiding behind the cloak of Mrs F softens her a bit. She’s admittedly a rich high living Democrat with socialist leanings trying hard to distance herself from her exclusive lily white upbringing, while plopped solidly in the upper crust class. Despite her genuflecting to the class when appropriate and displaying impeccable manners, she’s stilted and, it’s hard to, well, like her. She has an “attention will be paid” approach while commandeering the class, and refers liberally to her grandmother’s teachings and sayings, almost ad nauseum, but when the teacher mentions his Jewish upbringing for his own writing project, she wonders why we have to divide ourselves into cultural “tribes.” The script gets heavy handed at times, for example with the paternalistic behavior of the husband’s character, which seems more old-fashioned Father Knows Best early 1960’s than 2004. In his exit, Farnsworth even referred to his wife lovingly as his “possession” – we got it and didn’t need her to repeat it. We’ve come a long way, baby, but the decades seem to have zipped past Gurney. Or maybe it was his intent to transplant a 1960’s rich, white Waspy archaic mentality smack dab in the turbo charged and electronic aged 2004.
Quibbles notwithstanding, this is a fun and topical piece with considerable relevance–while it is solidly a comedy, there’s an undercurrent of sadness considering that the issues that spark Mrs. Farnsworth’s outrage and vehement passions in 2004 persist in G.W’s current reign. On a lighter note, the play has proven it’s got legs with sold out performances on the New York stage (2004), away from “the Hill,” featuring Sigorney Weaver and John Lithgow. No matter. Their high voltage star-power couldn’t have been any better or brighter than the Hébert and Hedman combination gracing this solid production in our own metro area at Rep Stage.
(Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission) Rep Stages’ production of Mrs. Farnsworth is playing through Sept 23rd in Building N, Room 220 on the Howard Community College Campus. 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia, MD. Showtimes: Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30pm; Friday and Saturday 8pm; Saturday-Sunday matinees 2:30. Box Office: 410- 772-4900 or consult their website.