What could be better than one Alan Bennett? How about two?
The British playwright (The History Boys, Talking Heads) often injects pieces of his personal life into his work. In The Lady in the Van, Bennett not only recounts a unique fifteen year portion of his life, he is both major character and Greek chorus for the story.
The Lady in the Van, being given its Washington-area premiere by the Unexpected Stage Company at the Randolph Road Theatre, the estimable production does right by Bennett’s script and is highlighted by a superb trio of leading actors.
The Lady in the Van is inspired by the relationship between the writer and Miss Shepherd, the eccentric old soul who parked her van in his garden and ended up staying until the end of her life. The derelict vehicle became her universe, save for a few wanderings. She sold religious pamphlets and even stayed on the voting rolls, even as she made Bennett’s garden her home. Through the years, Miss Shepherd astounded, entertained, and even disgusted Bennett. (He had to clean up her poop, after all). In turn, she grew to depend on him in her own fiercely independent manner, although she would never admit to the connection.
As Bennett yields up the story of the strange adventure with his garden tenant, we see glimpses of the woman he knew possibly better than his own mother. Eccentricities aside, why would an intelligent and resourceful woman continue to live in a series of cramped vans parked in a stranger’s garden? Bennett does not try to answer the question definitively, but he does reveal the pivotal tragedy that drove her over the edge and into the fringes of society.
The two-act play brims with Bennett’s characteristic inventiveness and dry humor. When a new social worker asks Miss Shepherd how to reach her, the van-dweller replies, “You can try Mr. Bennett, only don’t take any notice of what he says. He’s a communist, possibly.” Miss Shepherd provides a wild ride of absurd observations, political pronouncements, and her own brand of devout Catholicism – sometimes all at the same time. She asks Alan to type out a letter to the Vatican’s College of Cardinals to offer suggestions for an older and taller Pope, “height counting towards knowledge.” Apparently her first thought was to make direct contact with a prominent missionary. “I was going to phone Mother Teresa but the woman at Directory Enquiries said she drew a blank.”
The theatrical device of having Alan Bennett share the stage with the narrator Alan Bennett succeeds brilliantly. In this production, Adam Downs is Alan Bennett 1, the character who relives the story from 1971 to 1989. Alan Bennett 2 – Bob Sheire – remains unseen to the other characters. Bennett 2 is the audience’s guide and serves as a conscience to his counterpart. The playwright’s wry observations and reluctant caring for Miss Shepherd are made clear through Downs’ and Sheire’s distinctive performances.
Sally Anderson brings out the nuances of Miss Shepherd’s personality: imperious, pious, irascible, endearing and sharp. Clothed in various layers of coats, sweaters, skirts, scarves and hats, Anderson’s Miss Shepherd finds grace in the squalor of living cheek-by-jowl. The three leads really point to perfect casting by Goodrich. There is a palpable connection between Anderson and Downs during their exchanges. In the play’s last moments, Miss Shepherd is finally able to see the other Alan Bennett in a memorable graveside scene. “Two of you now,” Miss Shepherd asks. “Is that because you’re in two minds?” “Yes,” responds Alan Bennett 2, while Alan Bennett 1 says, “No.”
Bennett’s play also includes characters that give outside perspectives on both the lady in the van and her pseudo-landlord. Lois Sanders-DeVincent is Bennett’s mother, the other elderly woman who figures prominently in his life. “Who better to fearlessly chronicle their intrepid lives than me,” Bennett 2 questions Bennett 1. “That appears to be my niche; old ladies are my bread and butter.”
The Lady in the Van
Closes August 11, 2013
Randolph Road Theatre
4010 Randolph Road
Silver Spring, MD
Tickets: $16 – $23
Fridays thru Sundays
The ensemble rises to the material and works together to serve the play. Tiffany Garfinkle appears as a composite of the social workers who helped tend to Miss Shepherd through the years. Bennett’s neighbors, Rufus and Pauline, are played by Brandon Mitchell and Dawn Thomas with affable charm and an aloof sense of detachment. Anthony Hacsi and Mark McCarver round out the cast as two men who understand the events leading to Miss Shepherd’s ultimate state of self-imposed exile.
Goodrich’s production team is to be commended for turning the intimate Randolph Road Theatre into Bennett’s house and garden, especially due to Steven DeLuca’s impressionistic set painting and his crafty version of the all-important van. The picturesque scenic elements are augmented by the expert lighting design by Peter Downty. Sound designer Elliot Lanes provides a rich audioscape of musical selections that add color and commentary throughout the play. (Discerning listeners will catch a bit of The Sound of Music among the clips.)
The only caveat I share is the pacing and rhythm of the performance I attended. There were times when the energy seemed to drain from the play and I had to struggle to reconnect for a bit. These were fleeting moments, but in during a two hour and thirty minute running time, I noticed them. Such pacing challenges should take care of themselves with repeated performances.
As a play that takes a stimulating look at a unique bond between two people, The Lady in the Van flourishes.
The Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett. Directed by Christopher Goodrich. Featuring Sally Anderson, Adam Downs, Bob Sheire, Tiffany Garfinkle, Anthony Hacsi, Mark McCarver, Brandon Mitchell, Lois Sanders-DeVincent, Dawn Thomas. Set design by Steven DeLuca. Lighting design by Peter Downty. Sound design by Elliot Lanes. Props by John Barbee. Produced by Unexpected Stage Company. Reviewed by Jeff Walker
Note: On Sunday, July 28, the 2 p.m. performance of The Lady in the Van is a homeless awareness benefit and will be followed by a post-show discussion. Audience members attending this performance should mention The Dwelling Place and half of their admission price will benefit the non-profit organization based in Gaithersburg, MD. The Dwelling Place helps low-income families achieve housing and financial stability in Montgomery County.