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Going Places In the Berkshires
CurtainUp Reviews
Woman in Mind

The English love their gardens so a garden seems a natural milieu for an English marital comedy. But when that garden has been landscaped by Alan Ayckbourn, rest assured that the story he plants amid the ivy and trellises, (nicely staged by R. Michael Miller), springs from the dark soil of family dysfunction. The 48 hours in the life of a middle-aged vicar's wife the playwright has invited you to witness is filled with funny moments. However, these comic lines are watered with despair and eventually descend to surreal depths. It's the most intriguing journey the Berkshire Theatre Festival Theatre has taken us on this season--a comedy that has enough emotional underpinnings to tug at your heart, with the element of danger (from stepping too far beyond the boundaries of reality).

If there were a travel brochure to look at before deciding whether to sign up for the trip, here's how it would sum up the itinerary:

As we start on this particular journey along Ayckbourn's unhappy marital landscape, we find Susan (Marlo Thomas), the main character of Woman In Mind, not serving tea and crumpets or weeding the rose garden, but flat on her back from a collision with a rake. It soon becomes clear that she's been out of it even before this accident. She has increasingly fantasized about a make-believe family. This glamorous loving husband (Frank Converse), adoring daughter (Sara Rafferty) and brother (Jay Goede) have their disappointing real life counterparts. Instead of the adoring dream husband there's a pompously dull vicar (Richard Venture) more absorbed in writing a history of the parish-- (in Susan's fantasy marriage she's the historical writer but of best-selling novels)-- than in righting the things that have gone wrong with the marriage. Instead of a lovely daughter full of shared romantic confidences, we have life with a son (Sean Arbuckle) who hasn't spoken to her for two years. Finally, there's a ditzy, inept and critical of Susan sister-in-law (Elizabeth Franz) instead of the suave and fiercely protective of Susan dream brother Tony.

To complete the dual cast of characters in Susan's in-and-out-of-reality world there's a bumbling, accident-prone doctor (Mark Blum). Called in to minister to Susan after her accident, he tries his inept best to help her step back from the abyss where a little romantic fantasizing turns into a total break with reality. While Marlo Thomas is the star around whom the other comic satellites revolve, Blum, is the evening's emotionally diverse and comic standout. He makes the kindly but ineffective doctor who finds he's paid too high a price for a free lunch-- ( an omelette seasoned with Earl Grey tea no less) the play's most fully realized and clarifying character. He doesn't have to scream for us to see that he too has papered over the problems in a less than ideal marriage. His physical malaprops symbolize his inability to heal his own or anyone else's shortcomings. And watch the jibberish he speaks when Susan first wakes from her rake-induced stupor--it's the smoking gun that is going to have to go off before the play ends.

If Blum is the evening's standout, does that mean the rest of the cast doesn't measure up? The answer is they don't, the exceptions being the fantasy daughter and brother as played by Sarah Rafferty and Jay Goede. Marlo Thomas has some good moments, (mostly in her fantasy life), and displays admirable endurance, (she's never off-stage). However, her portrait of Susan neither captures the deeper emotional nuances beneath Ackbourn's broad humor or the less sympathetic aspects of her character. In a play where everything is seen from the viewpoint of one character, as is the case here, it takes great subtlety to make a scene like Susan's confrontation with her son (Sean Arbuckle) convincing. Susan's real husband as played by Richard Venture, is also less than satisfactory in portraying the Vicar who can't see the troubles in his most immediate parish. As for Elizabeth Franz, whose work I've admired in last year's Jitta's Atonement and an off-Broadway production at the Atlantic Theater (Minutes From the BlueRoute) here tries too hard to be the epitome of the Monty Python-Fawlty Towers school of British humor.

The penultimate scene which uproariously blends Susan's two lives, brings out the very best in the actors, the director (Gordon Edelstein) and costume designer (Murell Horton). Everyone involved rises to the challenge of this madcap fantasy of a wedding that metamorphoses into a day at the races. It also showcases Ackbourn's ability as a comic dramatist and makes one glad to have seen this rarely produced play from his considerable body of work which includes other spearings of the foibles and miseries of modern middle class marrieds and collaborating on the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Jeeves . (CurtainUp's review).
By Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Gordon Edelstein
Starring Marlo Thomas
With Mark Blum, Frank Converse, Richard Venture, Elizabeth Franz, Jay Goede, Sean Arbuckle and Sara Rafferty
Berkshire Theatre Festival
Stockbridge MA, (413) 298-5536
7/22/97-8/09/97 (opening, 7/23)

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