Who would believe that a revival of English playwright Sutton Vane’s 1923 play about death, judgment and the hereafter would be the high point of an otherwise disappointing New England summer theater season? But such is the case. Impeccably cast and directed, acted with honesty, truth and empathy, this production reinvigorates a play that might seem hopelessly dated. The staging is without doubt the most completely achieved of any of the productions during the first three seasons of the Westport Country Playhouse’s new incumbency. (It, more than the Paul Newman-led “Our Town” earlier this season, deserves a New York transfer.)
Speaking of “Our Town,” one of the fascinations of Vane’s play is that it seems to have influenced the graveyard scene in that classic, and there are a number of other touches that suggest Vane’s impact on Wilder. Also pleasing are the play’s Oscar Wilde-esque wit and unforced humor, not to mention its almost entirely unsentimental view of death and the foibles and sins of the human race. This is a well-made play that, at least in this superior production, stands the test of time.
The plot revolves around seven people from different walks of life who find themselves aboard a mysterious ocean liner that has no crew and no outside lights. None of them seems to know where he or she is headed. By the end of the first act, we know that they are, indeed, all dead and on the way to either heaven or hell. In Vane’s view, these are essentially the same place.
The only other person aboard is the old steward/barman (played with telling maturity by Denis Holmes), at least until well into the last act, when the heavenly examiner arrives in the form of a jolly, worldly Rev. Frank Thompson (portrayed by Edward Hibbert with his usual flair). He’s come to sort out the passengers.
In a uniformly strong cast, there are two firsts among equals — Jefferson Mays as drunken gentleman Tom Prior and T. Scott Cunningham as the Rev. William Duke, who is devoted to his flock of poor Londoners in Bethnal Green. Mays is just wonderful as Prior, easily making him the play’s fulcrum and subtly revealing the young man’s pathos and despair. Cunningham is just as splendid, never more so than when expressing his delight to the examiner (who turns out to be an old chum of his) when he learns he hasn’t lost his job (remember, the play is an allegory).
But everyone makes his or her individual mark. Pamela Payton-Wright, as horribly snobbish Mrs. Cliveden-Banks, has a highly entertaining time of it cutting lesser beings dead — until the examiner exposes her as a former prostitute who forced her husband to marry her. Patricia Conolly is all no-nonsense feistiness as Lambeth Road charwoman Mrs. Midget, who has a not-so-mysterious relationship to tearful Prior. Henry Strozier comes on like a marvelously pompous blunderbuss as Lingley, another newcomer to death who is, shudder, a businessman (his exposure given an added frisson by the current skullduggery in the American business world). And even the reticent roles of the two suicidal young lovers Ann and Henry, who are given a second chance, are well played by Tari Signor and Garret Dillahunt. The entire cast captures the English accents, attitudes and looks of the period and, with director Doug Hughes’ considerable help, give the production pace, purpose, energy and style.
Hugh Landwehr’s ocean-liner barroom set, all wood paneling and deep-sea blue, swinging doors, portholes and deck outside, couldn’t be better. And Linda Fisher’s costumes are dead-on in period and character. Clifton Taylor’s lighting, David Van Tieghem’s music and Jill B.C. DuBoff’s sound design add to the production’s over-all finesse.
The Westport Country Playhouse has taken a significant turn for the better with this admirable offering. But with “Heaven Can Wait” last season and “Our Town” and “Outward Bound” this season, it has surely given audiences enough plays about death for the time being.