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A CurtainUp Review
The Autumn Garden

Lonely people are the only people who can't afford to cry.-- Ned Crossman

Sharry Flett as Constance Tuckerman and Peter Hutt as Nicholas Denery in The Autumn Garden (Photo: Andrée Lanthier)
By the time that Lillian Hellman wrote The Autumn Garden in 1951 she was in her mid-forties, long-divorced but still in the midst of the sporadic relationship that caused it, an affair with the author Dashiell Hammett -- the writer who perfected the art of detective-stories-as-social-commentary with The Maltese Falcon. Hammett became Hellman's lover and mentor in 1932. His guidance pushed Hellman's career into the limelight two years later when he encouraged her to write The Children's Hour, her sensational account of teaching careers ruined by a child's accusations of lesbianism. There is little doubt that without Hammett, Hellman's career would never have flourished as it did. But her success came at the expense of his; his own productivity diminished rapidly after they met.

The Autumn Garden would prove to be Hellman's and Hammett's last collaboration. Already an alcoholic, Hammett would die within a decade at the age of 66. Maybe his impending mortality, and a bit of reflection upon her own, provided the inspiration for Hellman's story about friends and family who must confront a number of uncomfortable realities about their lives.

There is more than a bit of Hammett in the character of Nick Denery, a haphazard artist who comes back from Europe to haunt the world of his ex-lover Constance Tuckerman. The story is set in a Gulf Coast resort town shortly after the end of the Second World War. Constance eagerly awaits the arrival of visitors, chiefly Mr. Denery, now married but to whom she was once engaged. Denery's entourage includes his wife Nina, with whom he is less than happily-married and a German au pair named Hilda. With Constance is Sophie, her young French niece who Constance managed to rescue from war-ravaged France. Denery proves himself to be a human wrecking ball, causing misery to everyone around him but seeming to care little about it. Once upon a time Nick painted a beautiful portrait of Constance as a young woman; now he wishes to capture her aging process on canvas. In a drunken stupor he brings an undeserved scandal upon Sophie, who contemplates the use of that incident to escape from a life with which she is clearly unhappy. In the midst of the turmoil caused by Denery, everyone is forced to re-evaluate the disorder in their own lives.

The intimate space of the Shaw's Courthouse Theatre brings a greater sense of immediacy to the performances. I was especially impressed by Peter Hutt who as Nicholas Denery delivers a remarkable effort in an especially demanding role through almost three hours onstage. Having spent many years living in Germany and now in French Canada, I was also impressed with the language skills that were evident in Charlotte Gowdy's and Catherine McGregor's performances. In Canadian theatre one expects to hear decently-spoken French onstage, but Gowdy's role demanded that she be convincing as a native speaker of the language, and at that she has succeeded. McGregor's German skills were excellent, and she made her character a credible one as well.

Hellman was often accused of imbuing her work with more than a bit of melodrama, but there is none of that in The Autumn Garden. Because the play is full of painful introspection some may find it difficult as viewing the characters onstage forced to confront some rather harsh realities about themselves may force many in the audience to do the same.

For an introductory feature about the festival go here.

Written by Lillian Hellman
Directed by Martha Henry
Cast: Mark Adriaans (Leon), Sharry Flett (Constance Tuckerman), Charlotte Gowdy (Sophie Tuckerman), Patricia Hamilton (Mrs Mary Ellis), Peter Hutt (Nicholas Denery, Catherine McGregor (Hilda), Jim Mezon (Edward Crossman), Laurie Paton (Nina Denery), David Schurmann (General Benjamin Griggs), Goldie Semple (Carrie Ellis), Mike Shara (Frederick Ellis), Wendy Thatcher (Rose Griggs).
Set and Costume Design: William Schmuck.
Lighting Design: Louise Guinand.
Running time: 3 hours, with intermission.
Court House Theatre, 26 Queen Street Niagara-on-the-Lake Ontario, 800.511.7429 or 905-468-2172,
From 6/11/05 to 10/8/05.
Tuesday - Sunday at 2 or 8 pm; performance dates and times vary. Follow this link for current schedules and to order tickets online.
Tickets: Weekdays C$69.00, C$59.00, C$49.00, Under 30 C$30.00; Under 18 C$34.50, C$29.50, C$24.50; Weekends C$82.00, C$69.00, C$59.00, Under 30 C$30.00; Under 18 C$41.00, C$34.50, C$29.50; Sunday Evenings C$50.00, C$42.00.
Reviewed by James W. Moore based on July 5th performance.
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