"Not an indication of anything." Noel, somewhat divorced from himself, utters those words in response to his wife Anne’s accusations in defense of his diffident attitude toward her and the world they inhabit.
In the world premiere production of William Donnelly’s play "Homestead Crossing" at the Unicorn Theatre on the Stockbridge property of the Berkshire Theatre Festival, this play is presenting a new generation’s take on material that was once the special fodder for Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee and so many other playwrights of that generation.
Home alone in a lengthy rain storm, Noel and Anne, bored with one another and unable to come to terms defined as loving civility, are suddenly invaded by a young couple who arrive separately, Claudia first, and then Tobin, who turn their lives upside down. Tobin’s arrival, in fact, turns a delightful drawing-room comedy into a dramatic examination of relationships and reality as first Noel and then Anne recognize themselves in the younger couple.
Recognition allows them to effectively change places with Tobin and Claudia, leaving them to live the eventual dreariness of their marriage while they take off and begin again as though they were the two young runaways. If that reminds you of other plays, even of the third act of Noel Coward’s "Private Lives," (note the "Noel") then you’ve pretty much gotten this play.
In Edna St. Vincent Millay’s dark and somber poem, "Lines for a Grave Stone," the narrative voice invites readers: "Here lieth one who would resign/ Gladly his lot, to shoulder thine./ Give me thy coat; get into mine." They are invited, essentially to exchange places or exchange existences.
Much the same thing happens here in the final 10 minutes of this play. Millay is more direct about it; Donnelly uses lyric subterfuge to make his point. Claudia, the younger woman, has been spouting some of Anne’s earlier lines throughout the play but Noel only begins to hear her do it much later and it is then that the switching of identities occurs to him. We hear it immediately, for there is little subtlety in the writing and we can only marvel at Noel’s lack of a credible listening/hearing obfuscation.
Not that the writing is bad. It’s quite good dialogue and the conflict does build nicely. It is just that we’ve heard all this before, especially if you have been going to the theater for 40 years or more. Not quite an homage to Pinter or Albee or Beckett or anyone really, it is instead a retread of old ideas and techniques made new again for a new generation.
I can see this being a hit because the new audience hasn’t been engaged with these ideas before, not the way we have been since the 1950s (or 1930s if you include Coward). There are a bunch of good reasons to see this newest version of the story, however.
First and foremost is Corinna May whose performance of Anne is a revelation. She has a stage persona that allows her to take the most banal statement and transform it into a declaration of love or war that seems 100 percent new and pertinent. She transforms human warmth and makes reticence seem like a pre-prayer point in the confessional. She moves with utter grace and genuineness. She takes the character of Anne and uses it to transport us into her very core. We come away from the play feeling we know her intimately even though her dialogue tends to hold her apart and aloof for a long, long while.
David Adkins takes the part of her husband, Noel, a man so above it all that the only reaction he can have to a stranger pleading for help at his window is a combination of loathing, fear and defensiveness. Adkins is a miracle worker allowing the audience to get to know a man who is hard to like. He opens slowly, like a day lily, and always with the threat of disappearing sooner rather than later.
Claudia is played by a guileless Lesley Shires who does the childlike qualities of her character brilliantly. She has a mimic’s natural ways, easily falling into Mays’ cadences. When she tells her personal back story and becomes Anne instead of remaining herself it is a telling moment, perfectly played.
Her boyfriend Tobin is well done by Ross Cowan. Tobin’s place in all this is an odd one and Cowan makes that work for him. The playwright gives him short shrift, however, using Tobin more as a catalyst for action than as a genuine character.
Kyle Fabel has been given a gift in the persons of Adkins, May and Shires. He unwraps these characters slowly with the playwright’s comic phase and then he turns them upside down nicely to reveal the dramatic intensity in the work. The transition in form happens so discreetly that you don’t even realize that the laughter has stopped, intentionally. Earlier this season he missed a few beats directing "A Thousand Clowns" but here he has caught the moments, responded to the writing and created a reality that works perfectly.
All of this takes place on a perfectly beautiful set designed by Anita Stewart in the right sort of costumes from the design pen of Lara De Bruijn. Paul Hackenmueller’s lighting helps to create a large space in a small stage and Shane Rettig’s relentless sound design tracks keep us aware of the situation outside (which was matched on opening night with a similar outdoor scenario).
A new play on old ideas with obviously renowned and memorable moments drawn from a hundred years of others plays, this is still a worthwhile effort if only for the work of the interpretive artists who play so well in it. It is a literate piece with a superb structure and near tour de force performances by its older leads that merit attention. So, attention must be paid...or is that from another play, too?
"Homestead Crossing" runs through September 1 at the Unicorn Theatre on the Stockbridge campus of the Berkshire Theatre Group’s annual Festival. For info or tickets, call 413-298-5576 or visit www.berkshiretheatregroup.org.