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The Constant Wife

There is only one freedom that's really important and that's economic freedom— Constance

When W. Somerset Maugham received a letter with a stamped, self-addressed envelope from a fan of this play asking whether the constant wife had remained constant, Maugham wrote, "I think Constance went off with Bernard and did not think much of it when she did. But I may be wrong. The author does not always know.". He mailed this puckish response in his own envelope.

Maugham's refusal to get emotionally involved with his characters earned this play equally uninvolved reviews when it was first performed in 1926 by Ethel Barrymore and its enthusiastic revival over the past few years is astonishing. Two years ago Kate Burton and Lynn Redgrave brought a burnished production to New York and next month Dublin's illustrious Gate Theatre will mount it at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C.

In brief, it's the story of Constance Middleton, whose husband John is having an affair (the latest of many) with her best friend Marie-Louise. Although her mother, Mrs. Culver, her younger sister Martha, and her friend Barbara are all trying to tell her about it, Constance deftly avoids their confidences. We learn John and Constance were madly in love for the first five years of their marriage and since then, they haven't much cared. Constance implies it's a relief that John has found romance with someone else but she has no intention of divorcing him, even after the appearance of her former suitor, the dashing Bernard. But matters come to a head and what Constance decides to do is accept Barbara's offer to decorate her home and become a self-supporting interior designer. This is The Doll's House, but different. Constance is fond of John. His reaction to their marriage may change for the better when she returns from her mysterious vacation which may include Bernard. What Constance has is practicality with a heart. Sentiment is not Maugham's thing and that may account for his appeal.

Evem in the 1920s The Constant Wife was too undramatic for the critics. Today, despite such creaky melodramatic contrivances as the appearance of Marie-Louise's irate husband and Constance's subterfuges which defuse him, it still seems to stroll along, like some genteel saunter down a garden path. Maybe it's the drawing-room sophistication, the characters politesse even under the most passionate circumstances, and Constance's ability to make an omelet without breaking eggs that make today's audiences willing to revisit it.

Megan Gallagher brings a Junoesque serenity and strength to Constance Middleton. This explains her appeal to John Middleton (Stephen Caffrey as a surgeon whose every volatile gesture betrays a love of the bedside manner) and Bernard Kersal (the handsome Kaleo Griffith) who's still a bachelor who loved many women after Constance but never found one strong enough to surpass her outstanding wife-appeal. Carolyn Seymour makes Mrs. Culver an elegant exclamation mark without raising an eyebrow. Ann Marie Lee brings an off-beat eccentricity to Barbara and Andrew Borba sets sparks flying as Mortimer Durham. His feckless wife Marie-Louise (Libby West) is a confection in delicious pastels, while Monette Magrath plays sister Martha a short-skirted sportisth 1920s fashion statement. She seems more impatient than cynical and, though the role doesn't give the actress much to work with, Magrath is a good foil for Lee and West. Veteran actor John-David Keller's Bentley the butler announces the guests and , always commands the audience's total attention.

Scenic and costume designer Angela Balogh Calin has scope for her considerable talents in interpreting the women's characters through dress. Constance's dresses are always colorless and simple, letting her wear the clothes instead of their wearing her, which makes a statement about her character and the types of men she attracts; the clothes of the other women make definite statements about their characters which the actresses fulfull or inspire as the case may be.

Director Art Manke has an affinity for Maugham's sly humor and sophistication. Maugham is not Noel Coward and his work treats reality with a sarcastic subtext which Manke mines very well. He creates some effective visual effects, such as Constance's throwing elegant dust covers over the furniture as she tells John she's leaving and a final scene through a back scrim of Constance throwing off her proper English coat and hat to luxuriate in the Italian countryside.

Playwright: W. Somerset Maugham
Director: Art Manke
Cast: Mehan Gallagher (Constance), Carolyn Seymour (Mrs. Culver), John-David Keller (Bentley), Monette Magrath (Martha Culver), Ann Marie Lee (Barbara Fawcett), Libby West (Marie-Louise Durham), Stephen Caffrey (John Middleton), Kaleo Griffith (Bernard Kersal), Andrew Boraba (Mortimer Durham)(
Scenic and Costume Design: Angela Balogh Calin
Lighting Design: Peter Maradudin
Sound Design: Steven Cahill
Running Time: Two plus hours with one intermission
Running Dates: May 4-June 10, 2007
Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Avenue, Pasadeno, Reservations: (626) 356-PLAY.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on May 12, 2007.
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