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"The Autumn Garden"
March 15 to April 15

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Washington Post, Tuesday, March 14, 2006
BACKSTAGE by Jane Horwitz

Hellman's Forgotten 'Garden'

A Lillian Hellman play with no villain, no high drama?

American Century Theater in Arlington will present just such an animal -- Hellman's slyly comic, ruminative "The Autumn Garden," Thursday through April 15. A minor Broadway hit in 1951, the little-known piece wends its way through emotional dust-ups, delusions and little tragedies at an upscale summer guest house on the Gulf Coast.

Hellman biographer Deborah Martinson says the play was Hellman's response to her critics in the late 1940s, when, "after 'The Little Foxes' and 'Another Part of the Forest,' she was accused of letting all the seams show, very contrived -- creating a melodrama with recognizable villains and heroes that were flat -- and she hated that."

"The Autumn Garden" has "no recognizable villain . . . no recognizable heroes, and I think that might have been part of the point," says Martinson, an associate professor of writing at Occidental College in Los Angeles. In it, Hellman deals subtly with homosexuality and divorce, infidelity, loneliness and disappointment.

Explains Martinson, "I think the play is about integrity and . . . creating an identity for yourself that you can live with. I think her characters have compromised too much, and one of the things she's exhorting the audience to do is 'come on, be honest with yourself.' "

Director Steven Scott Mazzola says Hellman wrote about two kinds of people in "The Autumn Garden" -- those who can change their lives, and those who are stuck. "I think it's a testimony to her skill as a writer: She can write about both possibilities," says Mazzola, who has made surgical cuts in the wordy script. (Hellman hadn't had time to do her usual final edit, then butted heads with director Harold Clurman during rehearsals.)

Some have called the play Chekhovian, but Mazzola disagrees. "People think Chekhovian is about people who are stuck and who are apathetic and who are trapped. She touches on some of those issues, but . . . it's purely Hellman. It's got her humor and her sharpness and her integrity and her toughness."

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The Autumn Garden by Lillian Hellmen at The American Century Theater

By Tim Treanor

Imagine, if you will, a roomful of morose men and women of late middle years. They are too old for optimism or other forms of self-deception, and so pass their time in reading, heavy drinking, and aiming barbed witticisms at each other. It is Louisiana, just after the second war. Into their midst returns a charmed figure from their youth – a stupendously gifted artist who has established a reputation in Europe. He, it turns out, is even worse – and worse off – than they: a bitter, controlling, smarmy lecher and a drunk. He spreads chaos to this listless house, and brings humiliation to people seemingly beyond humiliation. This is the long-forgotten Lillian Hellman play, The Autumn Garden. Hellman thought it was the best thing she ever wrote.

The American Century Theater is dedicated to breathing new life into the forgotten twentieth-century plays of great writers, and its handsome production represents a mighty effort to revive this one. Virtually everything about it, from the economical and highly suggestive set through the fine acting and even the excellent playbill, emphasizes the play's strongest features: its good characterizations and strong dialogue. Ultimately, however, even American Century cannot alter the fact that this is a three-hour play which is simply loaded with exposition.

Constance Tuckerman (Deborah Rinn Critzer), the sole survivor of a family which was once financially comfortable, has turned their home into a sort of resort cum boarding-house. She runs it and staffs it with Sophie (Maura Stadem), the French daughter of Constance’s dead brother. Her guests are also members of her social set: Fred Ellis (Joshua Drew), Sophie’s unenthusiastic fiancée; Fred’s overindulgent mother Carrie (Jan Boulet) and acid-tongued grandmother Mary (Linda High); General Benjamin Griggs (Mark Lee Adams) and his childlike wife Rose (Annie Houston); and finally Ned Crossman (William Aitken), the honest, hard-drinking man she has spent most of her life loving in silent suffering.

When Nick Denery (Jim Jorgensen) and his wife Nina (Mary McGowan) arrive, it seems an opportunity for Constance to recapture the joy and promise of her youth, in which Nick once painted her portrait before leaving for Europe and fame. Within minutes, however, it is evident that Nick’s soul is even more desiccated than theirs. At his best, Nick is a simpering, flattering cad, careless of his effect on those around him. At other times – such as when he seeks to paint a second, contemporary portrait of Constance which makes her look old and haggard – he seems animated by principals of gratuitous meanness.

I will not set forth the details of the plot, since to do so would rob it of what suspense it has. I will say that this is the best I’ve ever seen Jim Jorgensen. Jorgensen, one of the area’s most active actors, has a wide range, but he has a special instinct for the special qualities that bad men have. His Nick seems to glide around the stage in a trail of his own slime, batting his eyes at elderly ladies, lowering his voice in false confidences, launching haphazard efforts at seduction in front of his wife and the astonished company. Although Nick is a man steeped in falseness, there is nothing false about Jorgensen’s performance. Every bit of this extraordinary character is recognizable and true.

The other particularly meaty role which Hellman wrote for this play was that of the fiancée’s nasty granny, Mary Ellis, and Linda High nails it. Hellman gifted the role with some extraordinarily funny lines, and High’s timing assures that she squeezes every laugh out of them. She never lets us forget, however, who she is – a woman at ease in the corridors of power, unafraid of making decisions or of putting the whip to her closest relatives, if necessary.

There is much other good work done, too. Adams and Aitken were particularly strong, both projecting great dignity into their characters despite the characters’ weaknesses. McGowan nicely underplays her role as Nick’s long-suffering wife, thus throwing Jorgensen’s accomplishments into higher relief.

Nonetheless, there are cobwebs in this play that even American Century’s vigorous staging can’t shake out. It was only moderately successful when originally produced – 101 showings over three months in 1951 – and it is not hard to guess why. Hellman has really stuffed four plays into The Autumn Garden. In addition to portraying the havoc Nick causes, the play details Fred and Sophie’s strangely undernourished engagement; the deteriorating relationship between General Griggs and his wife; and Ned’s and Constance’s wistful contact, now reduced to two weeks in Ned’s summer vacation. Hellman tucked into each of these plots as though armed with some sort of playwright’s checklist. Backgrounds are ruthlessly explained, ("What’s been going on?" Nick asks guilelessly early in Act One); conflicts are laid out on the table and every problem is resolved – pleasingly or not – in Act Three. Every character has an objective, although for most of them the objective seems to be getting away from everyone else – through sleep, the bottle, or the next train to New Orleans.

American Century Theater deserves our respect for reviving this play. Its strong production shows us what we missed – but also why we missed it.

The Autumn Garden will be performed March 16-April 15. Performances are Wednesday-Saturday evenings at 8 PM and 2:30 matinees on March 19, 26, April 2, 8 and 15. All performances are at Theater II, Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang Street, Arlington, Virginia 22206. Tickets including senior and student discounts are $23-29. Call 703-553-8782 for information, tickets or groups sales.

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The Autumn Garden

The Sun Gazette, March 29, 2006
By Craig Lancto

Thomas Wolf wrote "You Can’t Go Home Again." That theme, picked up by the film, "The Big Chill," also is the main theme of Lillian Hellman’s "The Summer Garden," the current production at American Century Theater in Arlington.

Another theme recalls Thoreau’s memorable line that "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."

Despite those two themes the viewer is not likely to leave this production in a suicidal funk. Its lively dialogue and versatile actors work to make the evening entertaining and thought provoking.

Not one of Hellman’s most popular plays, "The Autumn Garden" is a mature work, more meaningful to "mature" audiences. I got it.

"The Autumn Garden" certainly has more meaning for those of us of a certain vintage, for whom the Biblical adage "As you sow, so shall you reap" has become an undeniable and often unpleasant truth.

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Constance Tuckerman runs a summer guesthouse on the Gulf Coast. Although the setting is just after World War II, it could just as easily be the middle of last week. Other than a remark about the Nazis behaving like gentlemen in occupied France, and a certain sensitivity about a complication in the intended marriage of Frederick and Sophie, the situation is as fresh and familiar as a high school reunion, where the objects of our absolute and undying love (or lust -- in high school who can tell?) have somehow magnified their endearing quirks and physical blemishes into sagging flesh with annoying traits unmitigated by adolescent passion-blindness.

Constance’s house (a wonderful set by Beth Baldwin) is the setting for an annual summer reunion of family and friends who have been gathering since childhood. The flighty and sadly flirtatious Rose Griggs and her war hero husband, the taciturn General Benjamin Griggs, played by Mark Lee Adams who was so engaging in ACT’s production of It Had to Be You last fall. One of the brightest spots in this production is Linda High’s Mrs. Mary Ellis, the "Mama’s Family" matriarch, whose wisdom and humor made a good play sparkle.

In the end, Jack does not have Jill and naught goes well, except for Jim Jorgenson’s Nicholas Denery, the single entirely objectionable character in the play, who so roundly alienated and disturbed everyone in the cast and, I suspect, in the audience, that I found myself sneering at him during the curtain call. Lucky for him I didn’t meet him in the parking lot. (Actually, probably luckier for me.)

Not only is Nick an arrogant and complete scoundrel, vile and self-centered, but he also has the audacity to emerge from his loathsome pursuits with the loyalty of his wife, Nina, played with haughty magnificence by Mary McGowan, in tact. It was enough to induce the vapors.

The wordplay is often droll, although such lines as: "I thought you might like to write my biography--when you finish with regional poetry" might be funnier to writers who have struggled to publish -- which might be redundant.

The "autumn garden" of the title reflects mature experience. I relived my 37th high school reunion, the second reunion my high school graduating class had organized, and I reflected on the bad decisions that had redirected my own life. I continued to do so when the curtain -- metaphorically-- had fallen.

What made this play a thoroughly satisfying evening for me is that it started with my being acutely aware of the acting, not generally an auspicious sign, but by the end of the third act I cared deeply about all but the one character I loathed. I loved Mrs. Ellis, worried about Frederick’s happiness, had developed a certain respect for the unexpected depth of the general, felt sad for Constance, grudgingly admired the guile that lurked beneath Rose’s superficial giddiness, felt glad for Sophie (whose French was more convincing than her French-accented English), and loathed Nick (and Nina for enabling him). Better still the characters had developed in unexpected richness, a tribute to Lillian Hellman’s writing and the cast’s performance.

A final note: Artistic Director Jack Marshall’s "Audience Guide," which illuminates and enhances the production, is available only to subscribers. It might be worth the commitment. The current guide is on ACT’s Web site: www.americancentury.org.

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Boarder Tension

Washington City Paper
By Trey Graham

A program note refers to this sprawling, ramshackle edifice as “Lillian Hellman’s Big Chill,” and that seems apt enough, so let’s attempt to forget that James Lipton—yes, the boot-licker who hosts Inside the Actors Studio—made his Broadway debut as the crypto-queer Louisiana kid who anchors one of the play’s four overlapping plots. Hellman, who’s better known for her gay-panic potboilers (The Children’s Hour) and bloodthirsty anti-capitalist melodramas (The Little Foxes), brings a double handful of floundering characters together late one Louisiana summer to confront their fuckups and their failures and the endings of their illusions. And after three acts and two intermissions, you too may be channeling William Hurt: “Wise up, folks. We’re all alone out there, and tomorrow we’re going out there again.”

Director Steven Scott Mazzola steers the evening carefully, though, making sure it’s always just on the generous side of grim, and there are laughs enough to make that pocket flask strictly optional. Most of them come courtesy of Linda High, a shoo-in for Best Crank in Show: She’s playing that crypto-queer kid’s rich old grandmother, and she knows in her bones that all Southern matrons want to be so rich and so old that they don’t have to pretend anymore that most people aren’t a bunch of damn fools. High has a high old time, stalking imperiously around Beth Baldwin’s seedily spacious living-room set with a cane and a permascowl, barking wisecracks and putdowns in a voice that suggests a chain-smoking duck. With an attitude problem. And a dead-on Southern accent.

Step back and think about it, and The Autumn Garden turns out to be a fairly sophisticated study in compromises and coming to terms, a psychological group portrait of a thoroughly messed-up bunch. (Who stand in, let’s note, for a goodly number of the types we all know and love: climbers, posers, moralists, fitters-in, compromisers, malcontents drinking to drown the courage of their convictions.) But fear not: As a yarn, it can be pretty entertaining stuff. That young man (Joshua Drew) and the boarding-house proprietor’s beautiful French niece (Maura Stadem) are planning to think about perhaps setting a date for what might turn out to be a wedding. All the tentativeness has to do with her not being sure whether she wants a husband or just some independence from her aunt and his not being sure whether he wants to get married or sail off on a six-month tour of Europe with a social-climbing young novelist (think early Capote) who never appears but whose startling plots keep everyone whispering.

Meanwhile, a taciturn World War II general (Mark Lee Adams) does his best to ignore his flibbertigibbet wife (Annie Houston), except when he’s trying to convince her that no, really, it’s time for a divorce, and a showboat portrait-painter (Jim Jorgenson) returns from a long stint in Paris with his Brahmin wife (Mary McGowan), who does her very best not to be troubled by the nervous enthusiasm of their hostess (Deborah Rinn Critzer), to whom of course the artist long ago proposed marriage. Looking on with a certain suspicion—of pretty much everybody but especially of the portraitist—is the bachelor banker (William Aitken) who’s been keeping company with the boarding-house keeper since shortly after the painter dumped her for the Boston heiress.

There’s a blowup involving the social-climbing novelist, the boy’s appearance-conscious mom (Jan Boulet), and the boy’s considerable allowance, another involving the painter (intoxicated) and the French girl (she unsuspectingly tucks the cad in), and a giant one involving how that’s gonna play with the neighbors. By the time the dust has settled, the maybe-one-day-wedding is definitely not gonna happen, and the painter and his wife are definitely splitting this time. No, wait, maybe they’re not. Also, the general has definitely gotten his wife to agree to a divorce. No, wait, she’s having a health crisis, so all bets are off. Maybe. Got all that?

It all moves a little too slowly in the American Century Theater’s production to be quite as deliciously anarchic as it might sound. But Mazzola attends lovingly to the textures of the play, and under all the surface soap opera, Hellman’s characters turn out to be pretty richly conceived. There’s a lovely moment early on, when Mazzola frames the French girl and the artist’s wife in a doorway, which underscores how clearly they’re going to come to see each other before the night’s over—and how much of the older woman’s heartache is just waiting to enclose the younger, if she doesn’t find a way out.

Much of the play is like that, subtle and bittersweet, and sometimes it’s downright pessimistic about how people negotiate relationships and why. But when it’s done, when all the summer boarders are gone and the hostess and her banker are left alone, blinders off, there’s a terribly forlorn, terribly mature kind of hope on offer: The others’ futures look likely to be as dishonest and as compromised as the pasts we’ve just watched collide, but maybe now, knowing more about themselves than they ever really wanted to, these two at least will figure out a way to just be.

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Dusted-Off Hellman Epic Still Packs a Punch

Sun Gazette newspapers, Monday, March 27, 2006
by MATT REVILLE, Staff Writer

Jim Jorgensen, Deborah Critzer and Maura Stadem in American Century Theater’s production of “The Autumn Garden.” (Jeff Bell Photography)

My initial misgivings about American Century Theater’s production of Lillian Hellman’s “The Autumn Garden” (two intermissions? a running time of nearly three hours?) dissipated when I heard that Jim Jorgensen would be portraying a creepy lead character.

In real life, Jorgensen is as delightful as can be. But, golly, he plays “creepy” better than just about anyone on the local theater scene.

And oh yes, Jorgensen’s character is creepy here - as are, each in his or her own way, just about every other one of the inhabitants of a sleepy summer cottage in the rural South whose human frailties are explored in the script.

There’s the rich and good but, um, “confused” young man - plus his mother and grandmother. The general and his nutty wife. The proprietress and her European niece. The heavy drinker from New Orleans. And the famous artist who’s returned to visit, bringing along his oh-so-proper wife.

If it sounds like Tennessee Williams, yes, there is some of that in here. For the lowbrow among us (color me guilty!), there’s also a dollop of “Mama’s Family” that sneaks in at times.

But the dialogue is pure Hellman: snappy and to the point, with little waste. In nearly three hours, there really were only one or two points at which the script seemed to wander off briefly. That’s bull’s-eye writing.

The show takes its time and allows the personal dramas of each of the characters to play center stage now and again. Each character has his or her own tale of despair to unravel, along with some secrets.

The cast is populated by some familiar faces, and nearly all are working on all cylinders.

Besides Jorgensen, as the conniving artist, you have his wife (played by Mary McGowan). Gen. and Mrs. Griggs (Mark Lee Adams and Annie Houston), going through the motions of maybe getting a divorce, maybe not.

The Ellises - matriarch Mary (Linda High), daughter Carrie (Jan Boulet) and grandson Frederick (Joshua Drew) - play out their own stories along with Sophie (Maura Stadem), who has conveniently and to everyone’s surprise become Frederick’s fianc/e.

Sophie’s aunt, Constance (Deborah Rinn Critzer), runs the faded guest house, and the aunt’s childhood friend friend Ned (William Aitken) turns up for a few weeks in summer.

That totals 10 actors, and each turns in a praiseworthy, nuanced performance. High has perhaps the most fun as the grandmother, whose age lets her say and do pretty much anything she wants, and she doesn’t hold back (hence the “Mama’s Family” reference above). Houston also gets to ham it up in her role.

Director Steven Scott Mazzola has fashioned a show that, while long, doesn’t linger unnecessarily and doesn’t have audiences squirming in their seats. Sets, costumes, lights, sound - all were effective.

“Garden” appears to have been Hellman’s favorite among her plays. And interestingly, we are told in a playbill essay that her friend Dashiell Hammett took 15 percent of the royalties for writing a soliloquy for the third act. Hellman should have kept her money; that speech, by Gen. Griggs, is one of the rare disappointments of the script.

The original production ran exactly 101 performances on Broadway, headlined by Fredric March, in the spring of 1951. (Theater trivia buffs will want to know that, playing a small role in that show was James Lipton, host of today’s “Inside the Actors Studio.”)

American Century’s Jack Marshall makes a point of searching out forgotten plays by major U.S. playwrights. Often in such outings, even with the quality production values the troupe brings to them, audiences leave the theater knowing WHY those particular plays had been forgotten in the first place.

Not so with this work. It deserved to see the stage lights again, and this production does it justice.

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