Postwar Always Rings Twice: Act, Inc. resurrects a pair of bygone scripts

Jun 25, 2008 at 4:00 am

After 55 minutes of mostly static discourse about the dullness of life in post-World War I England, magic happens late in Act One of A.A. Milne's The Romantic Age. As inventively staged by director Rob Grumich, before you can whisper "a midsummer night's dream," the drawing room of a British country estate is transformed into an enchanted forest. The same transformation occurs in reverse at the end of Act Two when the drawing room is restored. But before, between and after these two lightning bolts of theatrical legerdemain, there's a lot of talk.

Talk is what we've come to expect from Act, Inc., because this nostalgia-imbued company so often resurrects scripts from bygone eras when life and theater were slower paced. In The Romantic Age (written by Milne in 1920, six years before he began to pen his Winnie-the-Pooh stories), our heroine Melisande cannot cope with the realities of postwar life. She floats about her country estate, an ethereal vision in turquoise, dreaming that a knight from Camelot might come calling.

Enter Gervase, dressed as a knight and late for a nearby costume ball. You can pretty much fill in the plot from there. The only real surprise is that the script takes so long for the obvious to be resolved. But the company is appealing. Amanda Williford's ingénue provides a quality the play itself lacks: conviction. Williford's impassioned innocence is appealingly complemented by Amy Schwarz as her plain-Jane friend. Charlie Barron makes for an ingratiating (if befuddled) knight-errant. Most intriguing of all is seven-year-old Dillon Sansone as Ern, a mysterious presence Gervase encounters in the woods. Sansone delivers his terse lines with such impudent spunk, for one brief shining moment he defies us to anticipate what's going to happen next. If we imagine Ern as Milne's first sketch for Christopher Robin, he becomes very magical indeed.

Act, Inc.'s second offering, Kevin O'Morrison's Ladyhouse Blues, also plays out in the post-World War I era. Set in August 1919, the action occurs in a sweltering family kitchen in south St. Louis. The postwar world is on the cusp of change: Electricity and the vote for women both loom on the horizon. But just now the much put-upon Ma Madden and her four opinionated daughters are still defined by melon men, taffeta petticoats and kerosene lamps.

Ever since Ladyhouse Blues was first staged in 1976, these four daughters have been likened to Chekhov's three sisters. It would seem, however, that O'Morrison, who grew up in St. Louis, was more influenced by Tennessee Williams than by Chekhov. The alternately valiant and foolish Ma (Kim Furlow) is strongly reminiscent of The Glass Menagerie's Amanda. Helen, the frail daughter who is dying of consumption, is bonded to the painfully shy Laura. And like the absent father in Menagerie, all the men are missing from Ladyhouse Blues.

But O'Morrison falls into the trap that snares too many novice playwrights. The most pivotal actions in this mood piece occur offstage. Why should we care about characters we never see? The fact that many of these incidents actually occurred (in O'Morrison's grandmother's home) doesn't make them dramatic. Ultimately, what might have been intended as a journey of female empowerment instead settles for a lot of hugging.

Director Steve Callahan has instilled the evening with a sense of summer heat, and some of the performances are persuasive. The opening scene between the consumptive Helen (Allison Courtney Hoppe) and the flirty Eylie (Carli Miller) is especially effective. Even though the two actresses are mostly saddled with exposition, the mutual love in their sisterly eyes makes the scene sparkle. But isn't this supposed to be an Irish play? It's not, at least not here. Shouldn't Ma have some sort of a brogue? She doesn't. If this play is to evoke an era of prejudice and fear, a production must reveal an unsparingly gritty view of shantytown Irish; this version of Ladyhouse Blues instead projects 1919 St. Louis as a kind of romantic age, soft and sentimental.