Southern California is blessed with two quite different productions of Alan Ayckbourn’s tragic comedy about a woman’s descent into madness — one at South Coast Repertory, the other at the Tiffany. In many ways, this more intimate production at the Tiffany, featuring Helen Mirren, Paxton Whitehead and a strong ensemble cast, tops the excellent production at South Coast.
Susan Gannet (Mirren) suffers a knock on the head from a garden rake that sets her life upside down. For the rest of the play, she is pulled back and forth from her real life of discontent with her vicar husband (Nick Tate) and his boorish sister (Angela Paton) to theecstatic life of her imagination.
In her mind lives her fantasy family, who are loving, kind and rich. Her imaginary husband Andy (John Getz) dotes on her, while her fantasy daughter (Marsha Dietlein) and brother (Tony Carlin) offer her a shield from the harsh realities of her real family life. Along this confusing journey, Susan’s only companion is the local doctor (Whitehead), who struggles to make sense of her confusion and terror, but who can offer her no answers, but only compassion.
Seeing both versions of this play in the span of two weeks, as this reviewer did, is a particular treat. What stands out most in both fine productions is the strength of the script, which blends humor and pathos in a carefully tailored web. The characters are rich and the story-telling is a sterling example of Ayckbourn’s magnificent craftsmanship.
Mirren is an absolute gem in this role, taking a concrete, down-to-earth approach to Susan’s plight, which moves the audience even more. Mirren is not only a terrifically accomplished and technically brilliant actress, but also is able to find the emotional core of this character with directness and honesty.
Equally sharp is Whitehead as the bumbling doctor. An actor of great physical and emotional refinement, Whitehead conveys the wondrous fragility of this shy and awkward man.
The most noticeable difference between the Tiffany and South Coast productions is in the supporting players. While the South Coast version features strong performances in both leads, the rest of the ensemble is not as consistent as the Tiffany cast.
Nick Tate finds exactly the right touch as the soft-spoken yet overbearing husband. Angela Paton is hilarious as the eccentric sister-in-law who spends sleepless nights trying to contact her dead husband. Getz, Carlin and Dietlein are outstanding as the fantasy family. And J.D. Cullum shows the complex intensity of post-adolescence in his performance as Susan’s real son.
Dennis Erdman skillfully goes for the emotional power of Ayckbourn, and is adroit in casting this fine ensemble. As usual, Yael Pardess’ set design is excellent; costumes by Michael Eisenhower and lights by Michael Gilliam add to the emotional warmth and intimacy of this production.
Picking between these two productions would be difficult. While the edge might go to the Tiffany, neither should be missed. Give yourself a double treat and see both.