Theatre: Trelawny of the Wells

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Nisi Sturgis, Jordan Coughtry (@Gerry Goodstein)

How It’s (New Jersey) New York: The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is one of the Tri-State’s treasures. Critics come from NYC to Madison to see work there, and of course some of the actors hail from there as well.
How It’s Irish: While playwright Arthur Wing Pinero was English, and the play takes place in England in the 19th century, the kind of troupe described and the style of acting that we see carried on further into the 20th century. Lady Gregory and W.B.Yeats were still mad at it when they founded the Abbey Theatre in 1904, although Pinero was really describing acting styles of the 1860s. There’s an Irish stage manager, O’Dwyer, in the second half.

Arthur Wing Pinero’s sweetly surprising 1898 comedy of theatrical manners runs at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey through Sunday, Dec. 30.

Trelawny of the Wells is a play you may have read, or even likelier, read about. Chances are you’ve never seen it, though. This lovely production directed by The Shakespeare Theatre’s Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte makes a good case for it as a regular offering in amateur and professional theatres alike. It has a cast of 13 (and could be more without doubling), offering every actor roles with bite and heart. It has a romance with young beauties that takes some surprising turns. It has touching roles for older actors. It even has a woman in a breeches role.

There’s a moment near the very end of the play where Sir William Gower (Edmond Genest), about to leave a rehearsal of a play he is backing, is stopped by the word “Grandfather.” He turns slowly, gently, and sits, defeated by love. All around the house, people surreptitiously wiped tears away.

The plot of Trelawny resembles  a ’30s screwball comedy: popular ingenue plans to marry an aristocrat from a very stuffy family and retire from the stage. You may think, well, she’ll return to her acting ways, and marry the sweetie who always had a crush on her. Indeed the play sets you up to think that, lulling you into thinking you’re way ahead of it. The first scene, which Pinero seems to have written so that Londoners could come late, actually is two people talking about the main cast. It’s not a butler and a maid, but it is the landlady of the theatrical boarding house, Mrs. Mossop (crotchety but kind Jennifer Harmon), talking to the greengrocer Mr. Ablett (Matt Sullivan, working the accent too hard in this role), about a going-away dinner for Rose Trelawny (dreamily beautiful and charming, blonde-ringletted Nisi Sturgis), the most popular juvenile the Bagnigge Wells (we know it’s Sadler’s Wells). Rose is leaving to marry a young gentleman.

A toast! (@Gerry Goodstein)

All well and good. All pleasant and dull. The dinner party introduces us, literally, to the cast: the cast of the repertory company, that is. There’s Tom Wrench (jovial and wryly intelligent John Patrick Hayden), who just can’t get bigger roles and doesn’t mind as much as all that, largely because what he really wants to do is write, and who has a crush on Rose. There are the older couple Mr. and Mrs. Telfer, played with grandiosity by Jim Mohr and Elizabeth Shepherd, who are hosting the dinner. There’s Rose’s sentimental roommate, Avonia (Rachel Fox shrieks so much in this scene that it’s rather a shock later on when she proves to be charming and intelligent). There’s the vain, hammy leading man Ferdinand (Jon Barker hams it up with a nice touch of vulnerability). And there’s Imogen (smart, dashing Caralyn Kozlowski) the actress who’s left the Wells to be a star on the West End. Soon we meet the nice young aristocrat, Arthur Gower (Jordan Coughtry) whose shy, handsome quality suggests Hugh Grant.

Because you think you’re sure of where this is going, you feel a little sorry for Arthur when he can’t even get out a simple toast without going on too long and having literally to be shushed by everyone.

But there are glimpses that Pinero’s up to something else, too, when Rose is talking about her late mother, who was also an actress and always wanted Rose to get out of it.  She plaintively, touchingly repeats”I do hope she sees.”

What happens in Trelawny is that some things happen that you expect to happen, but when they do, they mean something very different. And unlike the stock comedy it at first seems to resemble, the characters in Trelawny are changed by what happens to them, profoundly. Pinero is not interested in merely sketching at types. He fills in eachtype– grande dame, vain actor, diffident aristocrat–  with love, never condescending.

Nisis Sturgis, Jon Barker, Rachel Fox (@Gerry Goodstein)

But we will next see her as a fish most definitely out of water, in the stuffy Cavendish Square home of Arthur’s’s family, where she is to stay “on approval,” as she says herself. His grandfather and great-aunt are hilariously stuffy, falling sleep after dinner (Jennifer Harmon plays the nervous, proper Miss Trafalgar Gower), disapproving of sneezing and sitting on the floor. But again: just when you think this is going to be about comic contrasts, it isn’t, though there is comedy. Arthur truly loves Rose, and tries to stand up to his intimidating grandfather. When Rose has had enough and runs away with her actor friends who have come for a visit the play takes a sharp left turn.

Tom, the playwright, is not a love interest after all: he’s a harbinger of the new kind of theatre that depends on mundane characters doing “real” things. He’s based on T.W.  Robertson, who introduced a kind of “teacup” play to the 19th-century stage in a time when the theatre was dominated by improbasbly stories of singing peasant girls and highwaymen.

When we next meet Rose, she’s lost her spark. She misses Arthur, and her time in London has taught her somehow not to love the fake old theatre she used to love. First her salary is reduced, and then she is let go. And when Arthur’s grandfather Sir William comes to see her, he’s a broken man too, brought to life by a spark of remembering the great actor Edmund Kean when he sees that Rose has a memento of Kean’s given to her by her mother (it’s not Gilbert and Sullivan, so she’s not Kean’s long-lost daughter or anything).

There may be no greater tribute to the theatre when the grandfather later asks to watch a rehearsal of Tom’s play, Life, which he helped to back, just one time, because he cannot get the play out of his head since the author read it. It reminds him of some members of his family, he says. “Late, members of my family” Genest delivers these lines gruflly, simply, and gives you a flash of insight into the fire that he’s stifled  in pursuit of a calm life.  Genest is the actor who broke my heart, but as in the kind of ensemble company that Pinero draws in Trelawny, he is one of a wonderful company.

John Patrick Hayden, Caralyn Kozlowski (@Gerry Goodstein)

Could you blame anyone at being a stage-door Johnny for Nisi Sturgis, with her beautiful and expressive face, sweet singing voice, and mercurial touches of humor and sorrow? There seems no kind of character this charmer cannot fully inhabit and make us love. Rachel Fox, when she’s dressed as the prince for a Panto (pantomime) production, shows the energy and exuberance of the ingenue. She is unimpressed by Sir William’s riches, telling him what he’s done to Rose: “You’ve broken her heart, and what’s worse, you’ve made her genteel.” As Mrs. Telfer, Elizabeth Shepherd catches your heart when she reveals she’s been called to Tom’s production not to act in it but to be wardrobe mistress. And her earnestness when she asks her husband, the lovable Jim Mohr, on hearing he’s been asked to play an old stagey out-of-date actor, “do you think you can get near it,” is adorable. Connor Carew plays a meddling, inefficient Irish stage manager with hilarious ebullience, and despite their rise in fortunes both John Patrick Hayden’s Tom and Caralyn Kozlowski’s Imogen retain the dignity and affability they had earlier. For me, though, Edmond Genest’s gruff, dignified, vulnerable aristo stole the show.

Nisi Sturgis, Edmond Genest (@Gerry Goodstein)

What a valentine to theatre. This is not about how there’s an actor inside everyone: that would be a joke. This is how powerful art can be, how dangerous even, and how sacred, even holy it is.  The love for the “splendid gypsy” as Grandfather describes Kean, and as we see in these actors trying to find a life for themselves, is simply infectious.

It’s a gorgeous looking play, too, thanks to Hugh Hanson’s costume design, and scenic design by Bonnie J. Monte and Anita Tripathi Easterling that both suggests the actual places and also the beautiful old-school artificiality of theatre. Yep, the fireplace is cardboard. Yep, we can see the brick stage wall in back.

Special mention has to be made of Monte’s sound design, which includes the vaudeville standard “The Boy I Love Is Up in the Gallery.”  I wanted to sing along.

I didn’t want the play to end.

(this is not from Trelawny, but it is a version of the 1895 song that made Marie Lloyd famous).

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