Pia de Keyser
The latest of the Orange Tree’s series of infrequently performed plays by women writers is this 1922 comedy by American playwright Susan Glaspell. This is a real discovery. The play has gone unperformed since its original production, but the Orange Tree has reawakened it and given it life, made it seem vital and fresh, and made one wonder how it could have been ignored for so long.
Having said that the first scene does not bode well, it takes a good, long while to establish the characters and to build up the requisite comic pace. Fortunately, after this static and uneasy start, it soon hits its stride.
The play opens in a New York apartment where Seymore Standish, a poet from the Mid West is visiting his radical friends, Nora, a birth control campaigner with fashionable bobbed hair, and Leon, a liberal newspaper editor. He bemoans the constraints of his conservative existence back home in Bluff City where his creativity is stifled by a respectable job, his sweet, unworldly wife, Dotty, and the countless social obligations that come from being a man of standing in a town such as his.
The true meat of the comedy reveals itself when Glaspell shows us Seymore on his home turf and we realise that, for all his protests, he is rather content with his life composed mainly of bridge games, church meetings and rounds of golf. And, though his wife makes valiant efforts to understand her husband’s artistic side, he condescendingly puts her back in her place whenever she does so, calling her childish pet names and dismissing her desires to educate herself.
So when Nora and Leon show up in Bluff City, Seymore is understandably distraught to see these two separate aspects of his life collide. His sophisticated, self-assured New York set are as out of place in his home town as it is possible to be, busy singing the virtues of birth control and alienating his friends. They are very keen to liberate Seymour, to free his inner artist from the shackles of respectability, but he is quite happy as he is, and instead it is his wife who sees the chance for liberation in their arrival.
Glaspell’s play is more than just a comedy of two worlds colliding; there is anger at the heart of it, a bitter undercurrent. She is aware that forward-looking New Yorkers are in a minority, that it will take more than just a few daring hair cuts to execute true social change (the symbolic shearing of a woman’s hair is a theme that runs throughout the play). Seymore’s wife is able to taste the possibility of a new existence, but Glaspell recognises that things don’t change as easily as that. A taste is all she gets and the play ends on a downbeat note.
The ensemble cast work well together. David Annen plays Seymore with a good dash of charisma and makes him into something more than just a hypocrite who belittles his wife. Ruth Everett gives a likeable buzz to the fast-talking Nora, and there is something both girlish and fierce about Kate McGuinness’s Dotty. Helen Ryan is also superb as Seymore’s wise and wonderful mother.
Kate Saxon’s production keeps the comic pacing taut before letting things subtly slide into more serious territory. But the play itself is the chief joy here: a wonderful find, witty and resonant, poignant and perceptive, and very entertaining with it.