Type too small?
The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth, . . .
As Susan Glaspell's 1931 Pulitzer prize winning play Alison's House opens,
Alison Stanhope, the playwright's stand-in for Emily Dickinson, has been dead for eighteen years. The "bustle in the house" of the Stanhope family following her death was caused by the cache of poems left in a dresser drawer of Alison's room. Only ten of her poems had been published in her lifetime. She had written over 1800!
Recognizing the importance of Alison's poetry, the family did agree to its publication but maintained steadfast vigilance over her private life. Now, "the bustle in the house" is that of packing up books and belongings. It seems Alison's sister Miss Agatha has become too frail and "queer" to stay on in the house so the head of the family (Lee Moore -- brother of Alison and Agatha, father of Eben, Ted and Elsa) has decided to sell it so that she can come to live with him.
The dismantling of the household stirs up a hornet's nest of family feelings and secrets. It brings back the estranged daughter Elsa and prompts the distraught Miss Agatha to set a fire to protect a secretly kept packet of poems of a very personal nature. It is this manuscript known only to her that creates the drama's central conflict between the older and younger generation visàvis their disposition. To lighten the familial emotional storm, there's also a romance between the father's secretary and a young reporter who's come from Chicago in hopes of a last look at the room where the famous poet worked.
Chicago is the logical nearest big city for Glaspell's 1930 play, since it is set in the midwest instead of Amherst, Massachussets where Dickinson lived. Taking place as it does on the eve of the twentieth century Alison's Room also puts the opposing family views into the context of the approaching century's changing human behavior patterns. Alison loved a married man but did not act on it, instead pouring all her passion into her work. Her brother too placed honor over happiness (he was in love with his secretary Ann's mother), but his daughter and Alison's niece Elsa went with her heart. She and her brothers represent a new generation that lacks the self-discipline and sense of propriety of their father or the gifts of their aunt. It's not hard to guess who's for burning the revelatory poetry and who feels that Alison now belongs to the world more than the Stanhopes; in short, that these documents should be published. What's most moving about this struggle over the legacy of the dead, comes in act two in Alison's bedroom. That's when the influence of Alison on even the more shallow representatives of the living is evoked in the final battle of wills.
Even though this sort of quiet, well-made play revolving around discussions of spiritual values was hardly as old-fashioned in 1930 as it is now, several critics felt its Pulitzer award unmerited. That prize notwithstanding, the play is not the foundation on which Glaspell's reputation rests. She is best known as co-founder, with her husband, of the legendary Provincetown Players. That's where many of Eugene O'Neill's plays had their first airings as well as her own play Trifles which is widely pubished in its short story format as "A Jury of Her Peers." Old-fashioned and slow-paced as it is, however, Alison's House has been so lovingly produced by the Mint Theatre Company that it makes for an enjoyable two hours of getting to know well- delienated, sympathetic characters.
The seven-member cast works well together. Lee Moore is commanding as the father, with a voice that gives evidence of his experience in light opera. The two family outsiders fit in very well -- David Fitzgerald as the young reporter who also writes poetry, and Sharron Bower, as the secretary who senses that her employer loved her mother.
The production values, especially within the limitations of this modest venue are well done and imaginative -- especially the series of shoshi panels used as a curtain and in act two as the windows of Alison's room.
Alison's House sheds some light on the mysteries surrounding Emily Dickinson's life. Yet, as we sometimes see the actors only as shadow outlines behind the scrims of those shoshi panels, so the unseen outlines of this great poet's life must forever remain pieces of a puzzle only our imaginations can put together.
by Susan Glaspbell
Directed by Linda Ames Key
With: Sharron Bower,
Sarah Brockus, David Fitzgerald, Ann Hillary, Ruth Kulerman, Karla Mason, Lee Moore,
Gerard O'Brien, Matt Opatrny
Set Design: K Maynard
Lighting Design: Mark T. Simpson
Costume Design: Moe Schell
Running time: 2 hours, including one intermission
Mint Theater, 311 W. 43rd St. (8th/9th Avs) 315-9434.
Performances from 9/24/99-10/17/99 ; opening 9/26/99
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 9/29/99 performance