The Norman Conquests: Living Together, by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Peter Hackett. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
The Cast: Ashton Heyl as Ruth; Richard Gallagher as Norman; Caitlin Clouthier as Sarah; Mark Light-Orr as Reg; Jenni Putney as Annie; David Mason as Tom; photo: Rob Strong
". . .in danger of being spoilt!"
Richard Gallagher, Caitlin Clouthier, Jenni Putney; photo: Rob Strong
There is something definitively seductive in the dysfunctional family. For a playwright with a comic sensibility there is no field richer than this one. Alan Ayckbourn proved this back in 1974 when he created a trilogy of plays about just such a family, a group of inter-related plays he entitled The Norman Conquests, a distant reference to a particularly difficult period in British history which obliquely figures into the comic goings-on of this family weekend in the country. Unlike most trilogies which deal with different moments in a particular history - for example William Shakespeare's Henry IV and Henry V plays - this one deals with one three-day weekend in particular experienced in three different parts of the property: the dining room, the drawing room and the garden.
Three Vermont theaters are presenting the trilogy in three different months beginning now with the second play in the series, Living Together,presented in White River Junction by Northern Stage as the final play in their current season, their first in their new theater The Barrette Center for the Arts. They will present the same cast in costumes, on sets, and under lights designed by the same team but in the hands of different directors. This presents a new and interesting challenge as each director is likely to bring in different concepts, shown through different dynamics. Time will tell if this works, especially if you see all three plays, which I heartily recommend you do. While each one of the shows is unique and tells its story fully, you do not truly know what has occurred unless you watch the entire group of plays. Each play should satisfy its audience, but how much better it is to witness everything, especially when dysfunction is the order of the day - or three days.
The basic story is about three siblings, Annie, Reg and Ruth, Reg's wife Sarah, Annie's boyfriend Tom and Ruth's husband Norman. The seventh character, simply Mother, is shut away in a room upstairs lamenting the departure of love in her life and needing constant care. That is what Annie supplies. In spite of the overarching title of this work, this play, Living Together, centers on Annie. Annie's needs and Annie's needs alone are what this play turns on and what Annie needs is exactly what Annie gets - in spades. The dowdy, spinsterish sibling, she finds herself doted upon by her overly eager brother, her underwhelming friend and her intensely ardent brother-in-law. She is a woman with the seductive powers of a Delilah garbed in the garments of a slavey. Even when she dresses up for dinner she is still remarkably unappealing in any way except that her wit, style, life-fire and charms cannot be dimmed by bad hair, no make-up and ill-fitting clothing. Annie is the Queen of all she surveys and she mostly surveys her men.
Her seducer, Norman, is played here by Richard Gallagher in the wake of Tom Courtenay and Richard Benjamin. Gallagher plays the role without guile. He is straightforward, unguarded and completely charmless. He seduces without failure by being the baddest of bad boys. Norman is a librarian, an assistant librarian actually, and he's not the sort you want to come upon in the stacks. This particular Norman would be able to grope you while refiling the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Gallagher moves through the play from the position of cad to the position of lover with a peculiar physical arc that, without being realistic, becomes unavoidably honest. It's a curious transition that I cannot put my finger on and yet it works completely as he performs it.
As his counterpoint in the seduction of Annie, David Mason plays the Veterinarian Tom, a neighbor who is infatuated with Annie but cannot find the manner to prove it to her. Mason presents a picture of manhood trapped in a tree-top. He is effulgent and fatuous and completely without social abilities. Annie mocks him for this and yet seems to respect him at the same time. Mason brings a lush manliness to this most unmanned role.
Brother Reg is played by Mark Light-Orr. The actor infuses this character with so much energy and so much self-centered egoism that Reg bounces back and forth on the likeable scale from hideously over-involved to utterly incapable of paying attention. Again, the dichotomy is hard to understand even though it is played with complete sincerity. Light-Orr is clearly an accomplished interpretor of personality as his Reg departs the scene having completely won us over in spite of his inability to win over Annie or his own wife, Sarah.
Caitlin Clouthier is Sarah. She is a woman whose vanity is incomparable. She is intentionally mean to Annie. She is intentionally overbearing. She is intentionally unrealistic especially in her intentionally unbelievable turn-around in her attitude toward Norman (See the other other plays for some answers here). Clouthier makes all of this "attitude" realistic and yet confusing.
Ashton Heyl's Ruth is a dominatrix gone soft. She doesn't appear until the second act and when she does it is suddenly much easier to understand Norman, until Ruth tells her tale of being wooed by her husband and then everything falls to pieces once again. Heyl is remarkable. She makes Ruth both likeable and sympathetic while playing so much strength that we should instantly resent Ruth for barging into her own family's indiscretions.
Then there is the glue in the works: Jenni Putney's incredible Annie. Her peformance in the role is what holds this play together. She has no moment that isn't reasonable and completely understandable considering the circumstances. Putney provides an open-book sensibility to this role and we never doubt for an instant that Annie isn't responsible for everything going on around her. We know who this woman is as played by this actress and that is a remarkable achievement considering the director's inability to figure out what the play is, or should be, doing.
Peter Hackett's work as a director has been to keep this company of talented actors in as confused a state as possible. They are playing outrageous farce at one point, then melodrama at another. They provide a loud, hostile, angry first act and then a passively comic second act which has a completely different set of goals. It's almost like watching a double feature film festival with the same actors in the same roles but in different scripts. I would have preferred to watch the play cast in a single style and then molded into a reasonable format that allowed me to appreciate the people, flawed as they are, for who they are and where they're headed. Hackett hasn't given me that opportunity.
The production is superb. David L. Arsenault's sitting room/drawing room set is so perfectly English Manor House that from fabrics to wood to windows it lets me know all I need to know about this family and its history. Charles Schoonmaker's costumes suit each character to a tee, but I think he should realize that not every English man, especially one with luggage, only wears one outfit for three days, right as it is for him. Stuart Duke is one of those superb designers whose lights not only focus our attention, but also give us time of day and weather conditions. In this play his work enhances and adorns the piece. Jane Shaw's sound design works wonderfully, her music choices are excellent.
This series is starting us off in the middle of Ayckbourn's series. That shouldn't matter. However, there is something to be said about watching this fabulous work from the inside, for there is an over-reaching arc to the play. We meet these folks at 6:30 on a Saturday in July, but the play complete begins a half hour earlier and its third session goes back a half hour before that. The final scene of the third act takes place one hour later than the last scene in this play and the story requires it for true satisfaction. Play One - Table Manners will be available at the Dorset Theatre Festival in June and Play Three - Round and Round the Garden can be seen at the Weston Playhouse in late July. With this fascinating cast I don't intend to miss a moment of it. I suggest you do the same.
Mark Light-Orr, David Mason, Jenni Putney; photo: Rob Strong
Jenni Putney, Richard Gallagher; photo: Rob Strong
Living Together plays at Northern Stage at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction, Vermont through May 8. For information and tickets check their website at www.northernstage.com or call 802-296-7000.