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A CurtainUp Review
The Autumn Garden
By James Moore
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.
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