Abstinence and sex. Sex and abstinence. They’ve long vexed the masses, from noble to peasant as far back as the 1700s, when British writer Elizabeth Inchbald translated a German play roughly titled Love Child and called it Lovers’ Vows. Jane Austen—yes, the Jane Austen—mentions Lovers’ Vows in “Mansfield Park,” keeping the play, which was scandalous then for its open discussion of sex before marriage and the agency of women, from being completely lost to time.
And now, We Happy Few has dusted it off and given it a joyful makeover, making it dashingly humorous, à la every great romantic comedy since Hollywood films could talk, while overlaying it with a modern musical score—a synthy-folk/pop with ethereal undertones—even as the characters still float about in 18th century garb. Even the moody, romantic watercolor lighting and surprise dance interludes nod to the modern. The whole of it is a divine experience I never knew I needed.
Agatha (Jessica Lefkow), an older, sickly woman, is thrown out of her boarding house when the money runs dry. She finds herself praying to providence, and providence answers in the arrival of Frederick (Jack Novak), her long-gone soldier of a son who has returned for his birth certificate. Ashamed, she knows she must finally divulge the truth of his origin—that in youth her benefactress’ son seduced her and together they bore him. But, she promised to never disclose the name of her lover, who soon left for war. She believed in his affection and that he would return to her. Alas, he married “a woman of virtue” akin to his “birth and fortune” and lived his life far away. The culprit—whose name cues a low, evil jangle at every mention—is none other than the richest man and their lord, Baron Wildenheim (Lee Ordeman).
Lovers’ Vows closes November 23, 2019. Details and tickets
Unbeknownst to Agatha and Frederick, the Baron, now a widower, has just returned to his paternal home with his headstrong daughter Amelia (Gabby Wolfe) and a kind, new rector Mr. Anhalt (Alex Turner). Turns out Anhalt, having been Amelia’s tutor, has developed feelings for her and vice versa. But, Amelia being of “birth and fortune” must instead entertain the advances of the cad and buffoon Count Cassel (Lefkow, again) who may have shacked-up with a few ladies beneath his station hence past and promised marriage. All this will come out thanks to some well-written poetry by the Baron’s Butler (Novak, again), causing the Baron to reconsider his own actions toward Agatha and his insistence that Amelia marry a man of “birth and fortune.”
Melodrama. Mistaken identities. Will they/won’t they. Romance and romanticism that borders on the surreal. Lovers’ Vows has it all, toeing the line as farce, such as when the Butler rips scrolls from his breast pocket and reads his take on the town gossip done as verse, all with the restrained flair befitting a man who buttles. Cassel flirts with the women in the audience to cement his lothario status, and everyone in the play gets the joke that wine is the last thing a sick woman should be offered and yet is the only thing, apparently, people in the 18th century thought to give one.
Naturally, none of this works without a solid cast and here everyone manages to be both serious and funny simultaneously. It’s a feat. Novak’s Frederick is wonderfully carefree and principled, but the Butler and the verse… Drop. Dead. Funny. Similarly, Lefkow’s Cassel is perfectly smarmy in that self-assured snobbish way that only wealthy, unattractive men can be. She nails it. Yet, Lefkow and Novak as Agatha and Frederick talking about his birth in the opening scene is almost like watching laughter play out as effortless melody. They set the tone and the rest of the play follows. Their timing and delivery and sly winks wax comedy, even as they discuss the shocking truth of Frederick’s illegitimacy.
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Ordeman’s Baron is a complex man you are supposed to love to hate and, yet, you never actually hate, even as he’s forcing Cassel on his daughter. Because, as it turns out, he’s raised her pretty well, a fact she never hesitates to throw back at him. Wolfe and Turner as Amelia and Anhalt are both incredibly sweet and earnest and pure and right and strong, when they need to be. This trio—Ordeman, Wolfe, and Turner—are almost dizzying to watch as they negotiate their situations.
“None but a woman can teach the science of herself,” Amelia tells Anhalt after confessing her affection. Preach.
What makes Lovers’ Vows, perhaps, unintentionally funny today is that it was positively scandalous in its day but not for the illicit, shameless behavior of men, whose cruelty toward women was commonplace, but for the agency of Amelia and the redemption of Agatha. It’s hard to fathom now that either would have been seen as unfathomable back then. Silly women—they can’t be redeemed or think, let alone know things about themselves.
Lovers’ Vows is better than most romantic comedies on screen these days, and we can all thank director Kerry McGee for that. It’s certainly far funnier. Maybe the redemptive edge is a tad unrealistic (you’ll have to see it to understand that, and please do see it). But, we can all dream, can’t we, of a world where men repent, and women get what they want. Nay, deserve. If only Inchbald could see how far we come since 1798, and how right she was to write women as she wanted them to be, not as they were treated.
Lovers’ Vows by Elizabeth Inchbald . Directed and Adapted by Kerry McGee. Featuring Jessica Lefkow, Jack Novak, Lee Ordeman, Alex Turner, and Gabby Wolfe. Production: Jason Aufdem-Brinke, Lighting Designer; Heather Lockard, Costume Designer; Jon Reynolds, Scenic Designer; Tosin Olufolabi, Sound Designer; Raven Bonniwell, Movement Director; Kiernan McGowan, Props Master; Keith Hock, Dramaturg; Andrew Keller, Fight Choreographer; Caroline Dubberly, Scenic Painter; Bridget Grace Sheaff, Producer; and Ken Johnson, Assistant Stage Manager. Musical Score by The North Country. Stage Managed by Sam Reilly. Produced by We Happy Few . Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.