Washington Stage Guild made a wise choice in producing Terence Rattigan’s In Praise of Love. This literate and thoughtful work is well-suited for the company’s talents and is given an impeccable staging.
In Praise of Love revolves around the complex relationship between Sebastian, a caustic English literary critic and curmudgeon – appropriately, the play opens with him cursing offstage – and Lydia, his long suffering wife of 28 years, upon whom he is helplessly dependent.
They originally met in post-World War II Berlin in a brothel. Sebastian was a junior Army intelligence officer while Lydia was an Estonian former resistance fighter hiding from the Russian authorities. Sebastian married Lydia to get her a passport, the idea being that they would divorce upon returning to England. Lydia made herself indispensable, and Sebastian enjoyed her in the bedroom and her “funny English” so they stayed together.
Early in the play Lydia brings home a medical report from her doctor and friend who she refers to as Uncle Constantine. It indicates that Lydia is recovering from a medical condition, but we soon learn otherwise. (Hint: An original version of the play was titled After Lydia.)
Sebastian and many of his literary friends have found Lydia’s stories about being a suffering refugee boring and tiresome, so she decides to keep her medical condition private rather than disrupt their normal relationship. She has revealed her situation to one long-time family friend, Mark, who has openly expressed his love and admiration for her over the years. Upon receiving the news, Mark returns from Hong Kong to support her.
The final character in this four-hander is Joey, Sebastian and Lydia’s 20 year-old son. Joey has a difficult relationship with his father (an echo from Rattigan’s own childhood). An aspiring playwright who is about to have a 30 minute play aired as part of a BBC series featuring young writers, he is currently working for a Liberal candidate in a British by-election. Sebastian is a confirmed Marxist who fears that splitting the vote will allow a normally Labor Party district to elect a dreaded Tory to Parliament.
In Praise of Love involves themes of the role of deception in relationships and the unwillingness to face difficult emotional situations. Sebastian describes how the English vice is “our refusal to admit to our emotions” and that “bad form is not in parading emotions, but having any at all.”
Terence Rattigan is regarded as one of England’s finest playwrights of the twentieth century. He is best known for The Winslow Boy, The Deep Blue Sea, Separate Tables, and The Browning Version, all of which were made into films. When knighted by the Queen in 1971 near his 60th birthday, Rattigan became only the second playwright to be awarded a knighthood since the First World War (Nöel Coward was the first).
In Praise of Love is Rattigan’s last major work and was written when he was suffering from leukemia with only a few years left to live. (Like Lydia, he also concealed his condition from friends.) It was loosely based upon his friendship with Kay Kendall, the wife of Rex Harrison, who later played Sebastian on Broadway with Julie Harris. Reportedly Rattigan was displeased with Harrison’s portrayal because he made the role more charming and sympathetic than it was intended.
Long-time Washington Stage Guild stalwart Conrad Feininger is not afraid to portray Sebastian as a self-described “uncaring bastard.” It is a role that in lesser hands could come across as uncomfortable, but he leavens the part with just the right amount of bluster and wit.
Julie-Ann Elliott gives an equally strong performance as Lydia. She is alternately worried and bemused, and she somehow makes her concern for Sebastian seem genuine. Her Lydia is both vulnerable and strong. Steven Carpenter as the sympathetic friend Mark and Christopher Herring as the idealistic son Joey round out the fine cast.
IN PRAISE OF LOVE
Closes January 25, 2015
900 Massachusetts Ave. NW
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $40 – $50
Thursdays thru Sundays
In Praise of Love was originally written as a one act play. Rattigan then expanded it to a full-length work. The meandering first act requires a little patience from the audience, but it sets up a second act twist and one of the season’s most emotionally powerful and memorable scenes.
Director Laura Giannarelli has a fine feel for the atmosphere and subtle emotional currents of the play. Scenic Designer Carl F. Gudenius creates a perfect setting for a literary man’s flat, full of stuffed bookcases and Costume Designer Sigrid Johannesdottir’s costumes ring true to the fashions of 1973.
Terence Rattigan was most popular in the 1940s and 1950s, but there has been a revival of interest in his work in recent years. Washington Stage Guild’s production of In Praise of Love demonstrates why this playwright is deserving of continuing attention and admiration.
In Praise of Love by Terence Rattigan . Directed by Laura Giannarelli . Featuring Conrad Feininger, Julie-Ann Elliott, Steven Carpenter and Christopher Herring. Set design: Carl F. Gudenius . Lighting design: Marianne Meadows . Costume design: Sigrid Johannesdottir, Sound design: Frank DiSalvo, Jr. Stage manager: Arthur Nordlie. Produced by Washington Stage Guild . Reviewed by Steven McKnight.