Mrs. Farnsworth by A.R. Gurney. Directed by Cathy Lee-Visscher.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Neal Berntson and Johnna Murray; photo: Dan Region
"I donít want to make it a cheap shot!"
In 2004, at the Flea Theatre - way off-off Broadway - John Lithgow, Sigourney Weaver and Danny Burstein were seen in A.R. Gurneyís most elusive play, Mrs. Farnsworth. An intimate piece, the show is best played in a space that feels confined, has narrow walls and those old-fashioned schoolroom lights that hang perilously overhead appearing heavier than they possibly could be in real life. At the Ghent Playhouse the classroom atmosphere flops over the edge of the stage and the audience is the class, mute in silence as events play out around them.
Gordon Bell, played nicely by Neal Berntson, is beginning a class in creative writing and heís been asked, by mail, to allow a student named Mrs. Farnsworth to lead off. She isnít present. As soon as he calls on the next on the list, however, the eponymous lady appears and takes the platform and is off on a whoop-and-holler tale of WASP boys and girls on the ski slopes of the northeast, of a Vassar girl left pregnant and ignored by a Yaley who quickly assumes a recognizable size and shape. What follows is an introspective examination of truth and lies, reality and imagination, facts and fiction.
Mrs. Farnsworth, played with charm, wit and an extraordinary range of silent and verbal emotions by Johnna Murray, takes the stage and, like any WASP with marginal talents in a Gurney play, manages to hold it even for a lengthy period when she isnít on stage at all. The woman weíve met is a woman for all time. Confirmed in her ways and her beliefs she only needs one person to give her the assurance that she is exactly right to be who she is. That person is Gordon.
Itís certainly not her husband, played here by Tom Detwiler in a performance that allows a smile to be anything but a smile. Mr. Farnsworth can tell all of his wifeís stories and still come out a winner rather than a loser or a villain. By the time he has finished collecting her things from the classroom, we have heard stories literally one hundred eight degrees around from the same tales told before by the Mrs. Watching Gurney spin these bottles in opposite directions is fascinating.
"Titles can be totally misleading," he has Mr. Farnsworth say, and both men mean exactly what the words convey. This husband believes every soft-spun word that spills out of his mouth. He says he loves his wife, is devoted to her in fact, and in this production it appears he must. She, on the other hand, shatters the glass wall between "I do" and "Why Should I?" replating the panel each time passes through it to get to the other side.
This is not Gurneyís clearest play. The decision concerning the truth of the novel incidents that Mrs. Farnsworth is struggling to write down lies with the audience, the class. Gurney has cleverly put that piece of the puzzle into our hands and he wonít let us leave the theater, or the car, or our beds without wondering what the alternatives might be in this case. His two WASPs are certainly out of place in this NYU classroom. The three actors at the center of the struggle are doing a wonderful job of leading us into and out of confusion without ever dispelling it a bit.
Cathey Lee-Visscher, as the director of this piece, has done a remarkable job in keeping more plates spinning and more balls up in the air than any two jugglers I know. The center stage Mrs. Farnsworth seldom gets to stand or sit in center stage but is always kept just out of, skirting it delicately as though a special Hibiscus was growing there. The director keeps the action in constant motion by having people move into and through Mrs. Fís space without disturbing anything important. Not even the lady herself is allowed to do that.
In the classroom along with you and me are four students, Michael Meier, Arielle Lant, Nellie Rustick and Lindsey Sikora who do exactly what they playwright would have them do and they do it well. Joanne Maurerís costumes work well on these characters in a set designed by Bill Visscher under lights designed by Dave Malsan. The production is simple, as it should be, and the moody lighting harmonizes with the dialogue perfectly.
Now and then itís nice to have your brain picked clean by a theatrical buzzard which really is the role Gurney plays in this one. At the end of the show, a mere one hour and fifteen minutes, I didnít know whether Mrs. Farnsworthís fiction was written from personal memory or whether Mr. Farnsworth had destroyed the piece because it was too revealing for a politico. And it really didnít matter because the literary exercise I got from this one show cannot be bad for me, stretched though I seem to be at this writing. This is an unusual ride on a Gurney: literate, obviously; literary, honestly; bumpy road to an extreme; political as usual; seriously seductive and erratically erotic. You almost need to see it twice to dissolve the fabrications and discover the basics. See it at least once.
Mrs. Farnsworth plays at the Ghent Playhouse, just off Route 66 in Ghent, New York. For tickets and availability call 518-392-6264 or go to their website at www.ghentplayhouse.org.