Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Call of the mild

Photo(s): Megan Moore
Period music is all the rage in classical circles; indeed, these days it's often in the engagement with the past that we feel serious music's most thoughtful connections with the present.

In the theatre, however, the "period piece" is still frowned upon (for reasons that I feel are intellectually naïve). Yet there's a small scene devoted to this kind of thing nonetheless, and one of its exemplars is director Carl Forsman, artistic director of New York's Keen Theatre Company, who luckily for us has a relationship with Lowell's Merrimack Rep.

According to Forsman, his artistic focus is on "sincere theatre;" he aims to "make earnestness sophisticated," with an emphasis on "candor, vulnerability, and optimism."  You understand then why he must so often perforce turn to the past for material, and why in effect what he does is period performance.  Indeed, his plays are almost always drawn from the American stage of more than fifty years ago - he generally favors domestic dramas and comedies of manners.  And generally they've proved to be fantastic.

It helps that Forsman is a subtle and superb director - one of the most reliable in America, I'd argue.  That he is in principle non-radical, of course, is in itself a radical statement these days; his consistent elucidation of decades-old bourgeois conventions reminds us with embarrassing honesty that today's "edgy" entertainments are themselves only another set of bourgeois conventions - and that we perhaps can feel the form and pressure of our own age in their mirror as well as we can in our own.

And frankly, the comparison is not always flattering.  Take John van Druten's The Voice of the Turtle, which Forsman is reviving right now at Merrimack Rep (through next weekend).  On the one hand, it's a slender three-hander, a vehicle for a trio of skilled actors to exploit the unconscious yearnings of a certain period (that is, the war-weary years of the mid-forties).  To those who feel this makes the piece permanently dated, I'd only point out that Forsman usually chooses pieces that share an intriguing quality; they are about the degrees of freedom an individual may have within an existing set of mores.  It's amusing to realize that today we may be more often beset by "type" on stage than we were half a century ago; the politically-correct in particular are always trumpeting this or that character or situation as emblematic of class, race, or political beliefs; their texts are too often structured as symbolic political drama.

But Forsman's favored craftsmen of the past are rarely so doctrinaire, and indeed, The Voice of the Turtle turns entirely on its characters' engagement with public sexual and social mores while they are engaged with each other in a cocoon of isolation.  It takes place in a Manhattan apartment that feels like a nook of mysterious solitude - its slightly enchanted quality is heightened by Bill Clarke's intriguing set, which is done up precisely as it might have been sixty years ago, that is in streamlined, slightly-artificial pastels, with a storybook model city twinkling outside its window (and an elegant period curtain that rises and falls before it like the hand of Time).  A quiet sense of self-aware artifice pervades the acting, too - the performers all exude a sophisticated sense of personality balanced somewhere between dueling public and private identities (this kind of behavior was a staple of 40's movies, too).

But if the atmosphere of the piece is rich, the story is admittedly slim; it's essentially a finely-scaled fantasy about a lonely soldier and a pretty girl finding love while he's on leave.  And Van Druten has to work a little hard, frankly, to fill out his essentially conflict-free frame with more than two hours' worth of traffic on the stage.  But if his complications are sometimes a bit forced, they're also delicately rendered, and with a literate craftsmanship that's imbued with a knowing sense of grace.  So perhaps it's also no surprise that Voice of the Turtle ran on Broadway for years - although what's most striking about it today is the way it clearly reflects the forgiving set of sexual mores that prevailed during wartime.  Here, as in movies like On the Town, nice girls are allowed to make whoopee with soldiers on leave and still be considered "nice."  Indeed,  they can even admit they like sex - although the all-American Sally (Hanley Smith) wonders to her partying girlfriend Olive (Megan Byrne) whether after two affairs she could be considered "promiscuous" yet (both ponder this at top left).

This question is rendered so innocently it's sweet, but you can feel real anxieties floating behind it.  In wartime, sexual mores aren't the only social codes that are suspended, after all, and you can feel beneath all the characters' chatter about great times at the Stage Door Canteen not only the looming tragedy of the war but also a sense of creeping alienation, of life gone adrift at home.  Sally herself has been bruised by love already, and so has decided to swear off sex until she's 30, at least.

Enter Bill (William Connell), who I think you will be not be shocked to discover eventually triumphs over this obstacle to their intimacy.  But you may be shocked to realize that the inevitable unfolds in a way that never feels manipulative or cheap, and that Bill is portrayed as far more romantic than Sally.  And really, what can you say to a handsome soldier who can quote Milton?  (Besides "yes," I mean?)

Even if you're immune to the charms of this kind of drama, I think you may appreciate the obvious technique of the trio of actors at Merrimack.  All three manage the neat trick of projecting heartfelt performances through what is essentially a self-conscious screen of period convention; Hanley Smith makes the perfect 40's ingénue while still surprising us with her honest freshness, and William Connell hints at believable reserves of worldliness and rue beneath the facade of his smoothly handsome G.I.; meanwhile Megan Byrne nails her laughs in period style, but never pushes Olive too far into caricature.  I suppose a cynic might say that The Voice of the Turtle in the end is just a "date play."  But to some, of course, that may count as high praise (I think it still operates as a pretty effective "date play," by the way).  And even a cynic I think would have to admit, at least while watching this production at Merrimack, that they don't make date plays like they used to.

1 comment:

  1. I came upon this piece while trying to find/remember a 1940s play in which a soldier quotes Milton on his blindness. And here it is!
    What a wonderful and informative review of a most interesting play. And, of course, I particularly like "And really, what can you say to a handsome soldier who can quote Milton?(Besides 'yes,' I mean?)"
    AH

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