The Norman Conquests: Round and Round the Garden, by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Michael Berresse. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Ashton Heyt and David Mason on David I. Arsenault's garden set; photo: Hubert Schriebl
"If you don't grab quickly, someone else will. Sooner or later."
Fire is not to be played with. Ultimately you will be burned. In a Victorian vicarage-style house in July 1973 three siblings, their spouses and a friend spend a difficult weekend together and learn more about this reality than they ought. Playwright Alan Ayckbourn created them and in three full-length plays under the blanket title "The Norman Conquests" he let us see what happens over a three-day weekend in three places in the house: the dining room, the living room and the garden.
Three Vermont theaters got together to produce this opus in its entirety, each theater presenting one play. The same cast and designers moved with the growing epic and with each edition of the show the roles and the actors playing them grew immensely. The shows cover almost exactly the same time period, give or take a half hour. Weston Playhouse is the final presenter with the play that finishes the cycle, "Round and Round the Garden," and it is the finest production of the three, with the finest performances of the three. This is principally due to the fact that they've worked in the other two plays first and have honed, the way soap opera actors do through the constant repetition in a role, their characters to a tee. It helps to have seen at least one of the other two plays before this one, for this one makes obscure again so much of what has been elucidated in the other two.
That withstanding the play in Weston, Vermont, is delicious and funny and touching. It is everything that Ayckbourn could have wished for when he wrote the massive thing (actually it only runs, in total, about 6 hours and thirty-five minutes).
While there is wackiness in this play, it is almost always due to emotional circumstances and too much drink. The principal whacko is Norman himself played again by Richard Gallagher. In this play he seems much more in tune with his character and actually shows us the personality and charm of the man who can seduce an entire family of women (his conquests) and even come close to seducing the other two men as well. Gallagher, in this play, steps out from within the character's smarminess to give us a man whose desperate need to be wanted overrides everything else in his life. This may be a fine distinction but he is much more a man in "want" than a man in "need." Norman wants to conquer, to be admired and to amuse. He wants to be constantly in the conversation even when he's not in the room. Gallagher shows us this harsh reality and makes us laugh at the same time. Of his work in all three plays, this is the one where he truly shines.
As Ruth, his principal obstacle to happiness and incidentally his wife, Ashton Heyt makes a supportive case for Norman and his wants. The only character who really only appears in Act Two of all three plays, in this one her presence has already made a difference by the time we meet her in the garden and her self-assurance is remarkable. Heyt is brilliant in the scene where she seduces Tom, the slightly slow-witted Veterinarian who hangs around all the time, in love with Ruth's sister Annie but unable to reveal it. She is superb in her moments with her family and her loose relationship with Norman is so much fun to behold.
Her brother Reg is played by Mark Light-Orr who is sillier in this play than in the other two and that silliness gives him both a humanity he has been lacking and a personality that has been lurking. In this play Light-Orr brings actual delight to Reg's daily regimen. It is clear here that Reg has a reasonable sense of humor and a tolerance for the topsy-turvy of life around him. He may be serious - in his odd ways - in the house but in the garden he responds to all sorts of things in cheerfully delightful ways.
Their sister, Annie, is the intended heroine of the works and in this final play she musters interest in herself with results that have been contemplated by most people inhabiting the first two plays. She becomes the leading lady in this one with both of those words: lady and leading playing a big part in her interpretation of the role. We may have found her interesting before but here, among the ivy and the other greenery, we could fall in love with her, for Putney removes all sense of self-observation and lets Annie simply live.
Caitlin Clouthier plays Reg's wife Sarah with less caution and more personal involvement than before. As the voice of reason, even when reason has no reason to exist in the first two plays, when she speaks in this third play she is a combination of that earlier voice and the voice of complete femininity. Sarah takes the greatest risks which had only been implied in the other two plays. Here we see the results of playing with fire when a strong woman takes on that task. It is a lovely performance.
The outsider, Tom, is played by David Mason with the coolest warmth I've ever seen. Tom is the character who grows the most from the beginning of the weekend to its ending. He is the one who, in this third play, moves through a cracked protective shell into the world he has been gently rolling through for years. Mason does a subtle piece of work as Tom is led by his own needs into the next stage of a stagnant relationship. He actually gets to do it more than once which is great fun and not what you might expect.
None of these plays is actually about Norman which became something of a surprise watching them from late April until now. Each play has focused lightly on one or another character with the assistant librarian (Norman) as catalyst. Perhaps since he has such an effect on so many people he is the leading character, but I don't believe that anymore. It feels to me as though Ayckbourn, a wonderful creator of ensemble pieces, has allowed more than one of his people to take the lead in this trio of plays that tell the same story from the perspective of the spaces the characters occupy for a while.
The sets have been extraordinay and in Weston, the exterior of the house and its garden are absolutely wonderful. David I. Arsenault's genius at grasping how places make situations happen is clearly seen in this production. Charles Schoonmaker's costumes are great. Stuart Duke's lighting is exactly what the piece needs moment to moment. He helps us feel the temperature of the garden as well as the temperature of each character. This is a fabulous achievement on his part. Jane Shaw does lovely things with sound in this play.
Holding it all together and forging a vision out of old grasses and steel has been the job of the director, Michael Berresse. Of the three directors at the three theaters his work is just about the finest. For the first time the comedy rings out through laughter from start to finish. The family feels and looks like family. Their significant others feel applied in only the way such people can feel and look. Only a fine director can make these subtleties into observable reality. It helps to have as admirable a cast of players as Berresse does here. And it helps that the outward trappings of the play help us understand how the characters can be what they are where they are. Berressee does this all so very well.
I hope you've seen at least one other play in the series before you see this one. All three plays were written to be complete and independent and they are, this one included. But having an inkling of what has gone on inside the building helps enormously. Even so, if you only see "Round and Round the Garden" you will have a very good time with some outrageous people and maybe someone sitting near you can fill you in on other details. Ayckbourn's plays do rather turn us into community gossips in "The Norman Conquests" and we relish it wholeheartedly.
Mark Light-Orr and David Mason; photo: Hubert Schriebl
Caitlin Clouthier and Richard Gallagher; photo: Hubert Schriebl
Jenni Putney; photo: Hubert Schriebl
Round and Round the Garden plays at the Weston Playhouse located on the Village Green, Route 100, Weston, VT through July 30. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-824-5288 or go on line at westonplayhouse.org.