Benefactorsby Michael Frayn. Directed by Eric Hill. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"But are you happy, Jane?"
Jane and David live in a district in London, England where upwardly mobile folk dwell. He is an architect and she an anthropologist, although not a working scientist. She is a wife, mother and assists her husband with his projects. He is an idealist, a master-builder, whose goal is to remake neighborhoods, places she would rather see rehabilitated. Still, she loves and respects her husband and his work; she even makes her home and her time available to his best friend from College, Colin, and his mousy, beaten-down wife, Sheila. Jane takes in their children, feeds Colin and his family, provides for their needs as well as her own. She is a benefactor, spending her money and time for the security of the others.
Benefactors are folks who provide aid, especially financial aid, to others. Jane and David are both good souls with good goals. And then, things change. Colin becomes the viper Jane has always believed him to be and Sheila becomes the leech that she has always been but with a difference. Jane and David are now not merely benefactors, but are the victims of those to whom their benefactions have always gone under-appreciated. There is a moral lesson here and Michael Frayn, the author of this play would like us to understand how this is possible. In this 1984 play, currently on the Unicorn stage at the Berkshire Theatre Group's Stockbridge campus, he succeeds admirably in getting his point of view across.
In two hours and twenty minutes of riveting theater four superb actors show us these people and tell us their story. Each character narrates, from the play's present, 1984, the story of what happened to them from 1968 to 1970. The relevant scenes are played for us and the threads that bind those moments together are retold. The combination allows for introspection and for explanation which would otherwise be impossible to discover. Frayn, a superb novelist, realized in this play the perfect combination of styles to make his story available to an audience. Fascinating in 1985 when I first saw the play on Broadway with Glenn Close, Sam Waterston, Mary Beth Hurt and Simon Jones as Jane, David, Sheila and Colin, it remains so with the superb casting of Corinna May, David Adkins, Barbara Sims and Walton Wilson.
The architect's project concerns a section of Southeast London named for a British Crown Colony, Basutoland, inhabited by South African Blacks, and other foreign nationals. It is an interesting choice as in the mid-1960s this Colony was given its freedom and its relevance to the British diminished. In the curious psychological sense as the country itself, now the Kingdom of Lesotho, became unimportant to Londoners, so the housing authority has recommended a reuse of the district in London named after the former Colony. David's project, or scheme, is a total redesign of the area altering the 30 people per acre occupancy to over 200 people per acre. Jane is against this and so is Colin. Sheila is fascinated by the prospect. Unintentional alliances emerge among the two couples and divided loyalties further complicate the situation. While we think of a scheme as a devious plan, the dictionary regards that as a secondary definition listing "a systematic plan of action" as its primary meaning. David has one such plan on the table and Colin has the other. "Welcome to the battlefield."
David Adkins as architect David Kitzinger is nothing short of brilliant. He plays the man as an idealist whose best concepts are to be defended until they must be adjusted and when that occurs he takes it with a smile, for the plan is one he knows to be good and so it must be as he sees it. The curious wholesomeness in Adkins playing of this man is what gives the character strength and weakness at the same exact moments. Adkins is the sort of actor who, if assaulted by the audience reaction to something he has done or said, would stare at them through the eyes of the character, not the actor, and smile and nod and go on as the script demands. He himself does not make an appearance; he is somewhere inside the man he plays. To watch him play an idealist who has difficulty seeing anything bad in an avowed enemy is revelatory. He never utters a word that isn't totally believable for David Kitzinger. I would pay to see this again and again.
Adkins real-life wife Corinna May plays his stage-wife Jane with the conviction of a humanist who only sees the bad in people when she must see it and who deals with all situations from both an inner and an outer sensibility, constantly weighing the consequences of her decisions. Jane has a lot on her hands as she watches the "scheme" take its toll on her husband, on their marriage and on her relationship with Sheila and with Colin. Torn between her own beliefs and her husband's Jane makes decisions that hurt her as much as they hurt others. May shows us the inner struggle with subtle gestures and facial expressions that don't always jibe with the words she speaks. It is a forceful and remarkable performance.
Barbara Sims is touchingly human in the role of Sheila. Her vulnerability and her meekness grow into remarkably mis-placed romantic notions which are visibly self-torturing. This role is what is known as the "trap-role" for its roots are not deep and it could slide into invisibility in spite of its importance to the story. Sims digs in and makes Sheila less peripheral than she might be and actually puts her in the eye of the second-act storm. It was an impressive performance, full-bodied, well-rounded, pick your own adjective.
As her difficult and duplicitous husband, Colin, Walton Wilson physically dominates the small stage at the Unicorn and emotionally devastates in the role. Here is a character whose abusive and destructive actions ultimately set the drama into turmoil. Wilson gives us the darker side of Colin from the outset and he is, perhaps, the only character whose growth is a reverse of the others. The difficulties each encounter in this play make three of them stronger, while his direction is ultimately playing his own weakness into the fore and manipulating public opinion through the dissolution of his own humanity. This is not easy to bring out, but Wilson truly manages to become reduced in front of us. I don't know how he does it, but he ends up physically smaller.
Eric Hill, directing this play, has used Frayn's dialogue and story to show us the internal sides of the four characters. He has the use of fine actors, of course, who clearly see and can follow his vision. Hill takes them, and us, on a ride through the charnel house of London's resurrection. This is an evening of theater that will remain with me for a very long time.
David Adkins (no production photos available)
Benefactors plays at the Unicorn Theatre on the Stockbridge Campus of the Berkshire Theatre Group on Route 7 through July 26. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-997-4444 or go on line to www.berkshiretheatregroup.org.