Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Picture of Autumn

You have through July 14th to catch N.C. Hunter's A Picture of Autumn at the Mint, and you really should. This 1951 drama/comedy features a huge house and characters that would fit right in on Downton Abbey, yet its themes, relationships, and conflicts remain completely contemporary.

Helen Cespedes, George Morfogen
Photo: Richard Termine
In brief: Sir Charles and Lady Margaret Denham and Charles' brother Harry are getting on in years and find themselves less and less able to deal with their home, Union Manor, which has fallen into serious disrepair. Once upon a time, there were dozens of servants; now there is only the ancient "Nurse," who needs at least as much care as she offers. Most of the day-to-day chores fall to Lady Margaret, who feels more tired every day--and no wonder, when even getting from the kitchen to the sitting room is such a long walk. Still, Margaret, Charles, and Harry are happy at Union Manor and content with the prospect of someday dying there. Enter older son Robert, who believes--with much reason--that the three senior citizens should sell the manor and move to a more manageable home, perhaps a hotel for the elderly. After all, hasn't he received frequent letters from Margaret complaining of how difficult her life has become?

Anyone who has ever had an elderly parent will identify with this play, even if the family home was an apartment rather than a manor. The oldsters understand what Robert is saying--and even sort of agree in a theoretical sense--but they're not totally sure what his logic has to do with them. And when Robert reminds his mother about her letters, she's thinks he's overreacting. It doesn't help that Robert is the stodgy brother, the do-gooder who virtually fades away when his dashing ne'er-do-well young brother Frank shows up. It hurts Robert deeply that his parents are enchanted by Frank and not by him, but he keeps doing the best he can to help them. Still, well-meaning as he is, he never gets it that his parents don't much care about logic; they just want to stay in their home.

The give-and-take is familiar, yet unique to this family and beautifully done. Many of us in the audience have had these arguments with our own families, though perhaps without the lovely English accents and with less wry wit. For no matter how sad or painful A Picture of Autumn gets, it is always entertaining and often quite funny.

Well-directed by Gus Kaikkonen, the cast mines the full humor and pathos of the play. Particularly excellent are George Morfogen, charming and gently self-mocking as Henry; Jill Tanner, both warm and strong as Margaret; Helen Cespedes, lovely and sweet as the granddaughter who reminds Henry of his long-lost wife; and Paul Niebanck, agilely balancing Robert's stuffiness, pain, and good-heartedness. The set, costumes, and lights, by Charles Morgan, Sam Fleming, and William Armstrong, respectively, provide a charming, albeit underfunded, peek at Union Manor.

Sometimes when watching a play that is many decades old, I review on a curve. "They did things differently then," I remind myself. But, despite ending three times, this is a well-written, smart, and meaningful play that stands up against the better plays of today.

(press ticket; row E on the aisle)

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