Aunt Dan and Lemon

With that, Lemon demolishes the social construct that we call compassion, while the simply devastating Headly --- eyes widening in the determination that she is right --- similarly lays waste to the audience.

With that, Lemon demolishes the social construct that we call compassion, while the simply devastating Headly — eyes widening in the determination that she is right — similarly lays waste to the audience.

The soliloquies that bookend “Aunt Dan and Lemon” remain the ripest theatrical moments of Shawn’s play, which in fact bowed in London (at the Royal Court) in 1985 before traveling Off Broadway to the Public Theater. And as seen in 1999, they point an important way forward to a pair of Shawn plays that hadn’t yet been written when this one premiered: “The Fever” and “The Designated Mourner,” both of which are propelled by unreliable (and insidious) narrators of their own.

The sticking point with “Aunt Dan and Lemon” has always been the first name mentioned in the title, played initially by Linda Hunt and this time by Miranda Richardson. A brilliant American academic at Oxford, Aunt Dan (short for Danielle) is presented as the defining figure — intellectually and possibly even sexually — in the life of the young and impressionable Lemon, who has grown up in England the daughter of an American father (a droll Kerry Shale) and English mother (Janine Duvitski).

The problem is that the putative impact made by Aunt Dan never fully squares with the voluble but under-realized character offered up by Shawn. The playwright gives Aunt Dan an abiding obsession with Henry Kissinger as if that encapsulated the entire person; what’s missing is the crucial, defining charisma — however perverse — that would cast someone under its spell.

And so the acolyte Lemon becomes far more persuasive than her adored Aunt Dan , who for all her supposed influence seems scarcely dramatized.

That’s no fault of Richardson, an alumna of “The Designated Mourner” who is always commanding even when her American accent becomes a shade overemphatic. But a grisly subplot involving Aunt Dan’s louche English circle of friends retains at best a tangential relationship to a play that would seem to be lacking the defining scene where the amoral torch is passed from the one to the other. And though Shawn would no doubt (and rightly so) shy away from glib explanations of a twisted psyche, the dinner table scenes with Lemon and her parents raise more questions than they answer, rather as if all it took to create the Unabomber or any social misfit was occasional exposure to undercooked lamb.

The director, Tom Cairns, doesn’t always help matters, no matter how expressive lighting (by Wolfgang Gobbel and Michael Gunning) in which even the refrigerator of Lemon’s dreary digs exudes an infernal glow. Cairns and co-designer Robin Rawstorne’s set divides the Almeida stage, creating a screen on which Lemon’s filmed past can be projected. But the design also cuts off much of the action from one side of the house and fails to define the various time periods and locations of a play that sometimes echoes in theatrical terms its ambient Schoenberg music. (If ever a play called out for a turntable set, it’s this one.) John A. Leonard’s sound design is eerily exact down to the scurry of tiny insects, so it’s a particular shame that the set isn’t so much dislocating as irritating.

Still, the necessary disorientation returns every time Headly’s Lemon reasserts claims that — as in all Shawn’s work — threaten to expose the sham that we call civility. You may be appalled by the remarks that come out of Lemon’s mouth, but no one is likely soon to forget a speaker whose descent into madness could not be more mesmeric.

Aunt Dan and Lemon


  • Production: LONDON An Almeida Theater Co. production of a play in one act by Wallace Shawn. Directed by Tom Cairns; sets by Cairns and Robin Rawstorne; costumes, Amy Roberts.
  • Crew: Lighting, Wolfgang Gobbel, Michael Gunning; sound, John A. Leonard. Opened, reviewed May 5, 1999. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.
  • With: Lemon ..... Glenne Headly Aunt Dan ..... Miranda Richardson Andy ..... Corey Johnson Mindy ..... Amira Casar Father ..... Kerry Shale Mother ..... Janine Duvitski With: John Guerrasio, Dolly Wells, Jason Salkey, Daniel Cerqueira, Joseph May , Helene Wilson, Ruby Bentall, Sidonie Wilkinson. Glenne Headly looks woozy and out-of-it at the start of the Almeida Theater revival of Wallace Shawn's "Aunt Dan and Lemon," but don't be fooled: This visiting American's control over her part and --- ultimately --- over the audience is nothing less than the revelation of the London theater year to date. In a subtle, sneaky way in perfect accord with the quietly spoken, deeply damaged Lemon, Headly creates such a disturbing figure that the result is one of those performances that you can't quite imagine the performer shaking off. If Shawn's always-provocative play were this actress' match, the evening might simply be too painful to take in. As it is, Headly's British stage debut constitutes an unheralded event that makes something exhilarating out of a savagery and psychosis that lie far too deep for tears. "I'm a very sick girl," Headly's Leonora (otherwise known as Lemon) tells us early on in a statement that barely describes the off-center person we see before us. Arms dangling by her side, a bone-tired feeling emanating from a head tilted quizzically to one side, Lemon sways slowly as she shows the film footage from her past that will draw us into the purposefully fractured narrative of the play. Ninety minutes later, we're left alone once more with this frail rationalist whose warped logic could not be more fierce. Isn't killing part of the human condition, Lemon asks, in a voice so soft that it could almost be mistaken for sweet? And before we've quite clocked it, she has linked the killing of cockroaches to an acceptance of the Nazis to the lethal impulses that lurk behind none-too-polite society: "Plenty of people have cried in my presence or seemed to be suffering ... but I don't remember frankly that I actually cared."
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