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A Picture of Autumn
While this play was not a major success for N. C. Hunter (1908-1971), it did establish him as a skilled playwright who reflected his era. Presenting this dramatic situation with humor, eloquence and charm, he took his time portraying one family at a pivotal moment in life and addressing their problems with poignancy and humor without rushing for the answers.
While some action-oriented audiences may be restless with the leisurely pace, Hunter keeps the story vibrant with smart dialogue delivered by a splendid cast. The time is early October 1951. Charles and Margaret Denham, 82-year old Uncle Harry and a senile Nurse/housekeeper, live in the ancestral home surrounded by long overgrown gardens and crumbling stables and threatening taxes. They are waiting for son Robert and his family to visit after working abroad for several years. When they arrive, however, Robert is focused on persuading his parents to sell the place and move to a smaller home closer to town.
The play runs languidly for almost two and a half hours, reflecting the daily schedule of frustrating conversations and parallel discussions among family members who just talk and do not listen. Conversations are interrupted by frequent naps, remembering the past, and forgetting the subject at hand.
Hunter’s characters are clearly drawn. Margaret (Jill Tanner) runs the household, complaining. "The endless work, the shouting, the petty little annoyances—and why? What pleasure do we get?” Her dispassionate husband, Charles, portrayed by Jonathan Hogan, shrugs, “Well, it's not what it used to be, of course, but one can't just lie down and die.” Obviously, Margaret is more amenable to the idea of selling and moving while Charles phlegmatically agrees to think about it. Meanwhile, as they hem and haw, trying to decide, they all continue in their customary routines, firmly set in place through years of repetition.
George Morfogen is a vital Uncle Harry, the crowd-pleaser in the house. He is Charles’ older but more spirited brother, often irritating Margaret with his lack of punctuality and untidiness. With a penchant for over-dramatization, Uncle Harry points out that there has been a Denham at Winton Manor since 1762, “And now we pass, shuffling out of our inheritance with no more ceremony than if we were cattle being driven to the slaughter-house.”
The hard-working son, Robert, convincingly played by Paul Niebanck, is boring even to his parents as well as, he fears, to his attractive wife, Elizabeth (Katie Firth). When his dashing, younger brother, Frank (Christian Coulson), arrives from London, Robert recognizes the attraction and possibly a past relationship between Frank and Elizabeth. Though Elizabeth is drawn to the charming Frank, it is evident she will continue to support her husband. When Robert married her, she’d already had a daughter, Felicity, now 15.
Portrayed by Helen Cespedes, Felicity, young and pretty, has a resemblance to Penelope, Uncle Harry’s late wife, which first unsettles him. Felicity seems to have the job of standing aside and observing the others but her obvious fondness for the old man wins him over and they forge a relationship.
Barbara Eda-Young as the addle-brained Nurse, has been with the family for years despite her inefficiency. Highly excitable, she sporadically totters across the stage singing hymns and making cocoa. As Margaret grumbles, “There—listen to her—It's like having a child to look after.”
Director Gus Kaikkonen draws together the theme and characters, keenly preserving individual personalities. Charles Morgan's well-detailed living room is cluttered with memorabilia although it does not look as shabby and messy as the play indicates. Keeping the l950’s in mind, costume designer, Sam Fleming dresses Charles and Margaret in middle-class country clothes while Uncle Harry wears a suit. Elizabeth is dressed in a smart but sensible dress and Felicity looks like a teen-age girl in a blouse and skirt.
This tastefully written comedy offers universality in its subtle sensitivity and humor. It is an entertaining continuation of The Mint Theater’s acclaimed tradition of bringing fine actors to perform neglected plays that still resonate.