Alison’s House @ Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

cast list
Georgine Anderson, Mark Arends, Nicholas Gadd, Catherine Harvey, Jennifer Higham, Dudley Hinton, Kieron Jecchinis, Grainne Keenan, Diana Payan, Emma Pallant , Christopher Ravenscroft

directed by
Jo Combes
The Orange Tree Theatre has a real thing about the American playwright Susan Glaspell.

They have staged a number of her plays in the past including, in 2007, her 1922 play, Chains of Dew, not seen on stage since its New York premiere.

A founding member of the Provincetown Players, Glaspells work fell out of favour after her death but the Orange Tree seems keen to bring her back into the light; their latest staging is of her Pulitzer-winning play Alison’s House, written in 1931 and inspired by the life of Emily Dickinson.

It is New Years Eve 1899 and, eighteen years after her death, the family of the poet Alison Stanhope reclusive in life and posthumously celebrated as a great American voice are breaking up the house, as her elderly sister, Agatha, is growing increasingly feeble and no longer able to cope on her own.
The familys possessions are being sorted through packed in boxes and a rather brash couple, the Hodges, are poking around the place with hopes of buying it and turning it into a home for summer boarders.

A journalist from Chicago has also arrived, keen to write an article about the home of the great poet, but Alisons brother John is rather reluctant, being still very protective of his sister, while his daughter-in-law Louise is worried what such an article will mean for the familys already slightly tentative standing within the local community. Only youngest son Ted, a quick-lipped and immature college student, is fully happy to talk to him.

The play is dominated by the absent Alison; each character takes a turn to describe her, and she comes to take a vague hazy shape on the stage, a ghostly onlooker, almost visible. The key debate that threads through the play is one of ownership. The journalist articulates this best, telling them that Alisons words belong to the world. The family are understandably more ambivalent, seeking to shield the woman who was their beloved aunt, their sister, their kin. When some new papers come to light, this argument is tested and it is one of the plays chief pleasures that it remains uncertain until the very end which way the characters will swing.

Glaspell is also interested in the way moral standards shift over time. Johns daughter Elsa has brought disgrace on herself and the family by having a relationship with a married man, something her father cant easily forgive. Though Glaspell makes it clear that she has paid a high price for following love, it was a path she was able to choose, whereas her actions were unthinkable to someone of her father’s generation and indeed John once had to make this choice himself.

Rich as the material is, its the performances in Jo Combes production that really make it. Christopher Ravenscroft gives a superbly restrained performance as John; with a soft, cautious and measured voice, theres a little of Atticus Finch in him, though his evident love for his daughter is tainted with anger, both at her actions and by the fact that she that she has done something neither he nor Alison was able to do. Even when he loses his temper he seems to be holding himself back, with one volatile exception.

Mark Arends gives an equally well-pitched performance as troubled son Eben, an embryonic Frank Wheeler type, dreaming of the life he might have were he not tied to his wife and children, while Emma Pallant is highly plausible in the unsympathetic role of Ebens wife Louise, a rigid and upright woman who is just trying to do what she feels is right for her family, but has to contend with a husband who has clearly tired of her, and the Stanhope family as a whole, who include her while making it clear that she is subtly distinct from them.

Making her professional debut Grainne Keenan more than holds her own as Elsa, a woman living with the consequences of refusing to sacrifice her love for her family.

The play spans a single day, leading to the midnight chimes of New Years and the dawning of a new century, a moment shot through with the promise of a new freer age, (though this was no doubt weighted with a certain irony since Glaspell was writing during the Depression).

The playwrights voice comes through rather too loudly in the final section and there are times when the play overstates its case, yet despite being a thing of its time, it remains a remarkably relevant work. The public hunger for knowledge, to keep no part of an artists life private or concealed, to expose every word written to scrutiny continues. Witness the imminent publication of Nabokovs The Original of Laura, the notes for which he wanted to be burnt. But even more than this Glaspells play remains acute in its observations of the complexities of family love and loyalty.

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