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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Autumn Garden

And I've never liked liars---least of all, those who lie to themselves. — Crossman
Never mind. Most of us lie to ourselves, darling, most of us. — Constance

The Autumn Garden
Jane Kaczmarek and Stephen Caffrey (Photo credit: Ed Krieger )
Lillian Hellman's sardonically titled 1949 play was her favorite, eclipsing such better known works as i>The Little Foxes and The Children's Hour. But despite some glowing reviews, it didn't find enough favor with the general public and closed after a few months. The first Los Angeles revival in some time comes from the Antaeus Theatre. Double cast like all Antaeus productions, it's an ensemble piece, weaving the stories of the twelve guests at a southern mansion near New Orleans, now a hotel, without the melodrama of Hellman's previous plays.

The two casts, called Dreamers and Idealists, held alternate opening nights last week-end, of which I attended only the Idealists. The tiny Deaf West Theatre was transformed by scenic designer Tom Buderwitz into the parlor and porch of the Tuckerman home. Brocade sofas and chairs are strategically placed beneath carved ceilings. Stained glass windows are indicated. On one side a glass door separates the parlor from a porch with a ballustraded railing. The clever blocking by director Larry Biederman overcomes the narrowness of the small set.

The summer guests we meet: childish giggling Rose (Faye Grant), wife of retired General Benjamin Griggs (James Sutorius); Mrs. Mary Ellis (Anne Gee Byrd), acerbic grandmother of Fred (Joe Delafield) and mother-in-law of tight-lipped Carrie (Jeanie Hackett); Edward (Ned) Crossman, an alcoholic banker (Stoney Westmoreland); Constance Tuckerman, who owns the house, (Lily Knight) and her niece, teen-age Sophie (Zoe Perry), daughter of her late brother whom Constance brought from Europe.

Over the course of three hours, various scenarios unfold. Fred and Sophie, the engaged couple, play out one, with suggestions of homosexuality. His banal wife's fatal disease keeps the General who's longing for escape, tied to her. Ned Crossman represents the emptiest life of all. There are also the late-comers — failed artist Nick Denery (Stephen Caffrey) who's come back to his old home town; his wife Nina (Jane Kaczmarek); a glamorous New York socialite; Constance, who has long harbored the hots for Nick and consents to pose for him again, although he paints a vicious caricature.

The cast is uniformly excellent, from Anne Gee Byrd' who portrays the realistic and demanding matriarch with an underhanded sense of humor to Zoe Perry's highly-strung Sophie for whose superb accent, credit dialect coach Paul Wagar. Faye Grant appalling girlishness strikes the right note as Rose and James Sutorius has an appealing desperate naturalness as the General.

Stephen Caffrey brings a disgusting exuberance to Nick and Jane Kaczmarek as his long-suffering wife accepts with grace his accusation that she has the husband she deserves. Leon is Leona here and played by Saundra McClain with dignity and a dash of asperity. Jeanie Hackett brings a bitter twist to Carrie and, as Constance, Lily Knight has the feverish air of a professional hostess. Her long friendship with Ned never blossoms into love and her love for Nick is exposed as ashes.

So it goes with The Autumn Garden, a place where dreams never come true. Except for Sophie, who blackmails Nina out of $5,000 after a drunken pass bty Nick, no one is singing merry songs at the end. Realism, in Hellman's book, is the province of middle age and, though we live in different, not to say interesting, times, there's no room for happiness. In fact, it's a word that's never mentioned. In Constance's elegiac closing line, "Most of us lie to ourselves, darling, most of us."

The Autumn Garden
Playwright: Lillian Hellman
Director: Larry Biederman
Idealists Cast: Rose (Faye Grant), Mrs. Ellis (Anne Gee Byrd), General Benjamin Griggs (James Sutorius), Edward Crossman (Stoney Westmoreland), Frederick Ellis (Joe Delafield), Carrie Ellis (Jeanie Hackett), Sophie (Zoe Perry), Leona (Saundra McClain), Constance (Lily Knight), Nicholas Denery (Stephen Caffrey), Nina Denery (Jane Kaczmarek), Hilda (Reba Waters).
Scenic Design: Tom Buderwitz
Lighting Design: John Eckert
Properties Design: Jan Prince
Costume Design: Tina Haatainen-Jones
Sound Design: John Zalewski
Stage Manager: Ritz Gray
Assistant Stage Manager: Laura Perez
Dramaturg: Christopher Breyer
Running Time: Three hours 10 minutes, one intermission
Running Dates: October 28-December 19, 2010
Where: The Antaeus Compan y@Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Reservations: (818) 506-1983. Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on October 29.
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