Time has not been kind to the fading Gulf Coast guest house — nor its inhabitants — in Lillian Hellman’s melodrama of misspent lives, “The Autumn Garden,” which is receiving an effective and rare revival as the season-ender at the Williamstown Theater Festival. Allison Janney as the summer resort’s owner Constance Tuckerman hosts a full house of characters facing their disappointments — and at nearly three hours that’s a lot of rue.
Hellman enters Chekhov territory here, albeit set in 1949 not far from the American writer’s native Louisiana. But it’s not the most elegant fit, with the usually concise and straightforward playwright tending to ramble on, and with inconsequential details, plot turns and back stories deadening instead of deepening the play.
While the production has some richly drawn perfs — especially by Elizabeth Franz, Maryann Plunkett and Mamie Gummer — it’s not always enough to keep this meditative potboiler on anything more than a slow simmer. Handsomely done production is more satisfying if seen as an intriguing alternative summer outing — but it’s unlikely to move on commercially.
Hellman’s theme of life-isn’t-what-everyone-thought-it-would-be is hammered again and again, and then summed up in the final curtain line, lest we’ve missed it.
Part of the problem is that Hellman’s characters aren’t given a larger social and political context. Instead, they appear collectively as past-its-prime gentility, suffering from ennui, self-loathing or a case of the vapors. Hope for a better life for any of the assembled is registered quickly (an engagement, the return of a lost love, a revived marriage) but dashed just as fast. Presented with these archetypes of the handsome fraud, overage belle, wounded drunk, sensitive son or sharp-tongued grandmother, the audience sees the writing on the wall long before the characters do.
One wonders, for instance, why Constance has been pining for 20 years for Nick Denery (John Benjamin Hickey), the failed Bohemian artist who has returned to his hometown with his brittle wife Nina (Jessica Hecht, alternating between dour and radiant). Most everyone can see through Denery’s bad-boy act, and though Hickey tries to infuse him with charm, Hellman renders the task nearly impossible by making him such an obvious cad, drunk and lout. That this is part of the s&m allure for his wife is a nicely twisted touch but hardly enough to engage an aud through some long stretches in which Denery tediously holds court.
Still, under David Jones’ helming, most of the accomplished cast find the necessary notes of humanness to make these heavy-handed figures worth the weight.
With the merest glance or turn (not to mention her center-stage zingers and fury) Franz, as the tough bird of a matriarch, gives the production its most welcome lift. Also impressive is Cynthia Mace as the mother conflicted over the desires of her secretive son.
Plunkett brings enormous sympathy to the role of a delusional wife, a woman who finds her girlish affectations no longer have the same appeal in middle-age. Beneath her innkeeper-efficiency, Janney shows affecting vulnerability, but as written and staged, her character doesn’t command the play.
That honor goes to Constance’s French niece Sophie — the acute outside observer — who exerts a fascination over the audience as she grows dramatically from servant to master manipulator. Gummer gives a smart, glowing perf, showing that like her mother, Meryl Streep, she too, can master an accent and steal a stage.
Thomas Lynch designs an appropriately metaphorical manse with just the right degree of long-ago elegance. One can almost smell the mustiness. Ilona Somogyi’s costumes, especially for the women, underscore character details.