"American Landscape," by Elmer Rice, is an intensely interesting play. The dramatist has elected as his theme one which is three fold; first, to how great a degree should a man of illustrious forebears allow himself to be governed by the ethics of his ancestors; second, if faced by circumstances of ebbing health and wealth, how much of his ancient heritage is he morally obliged to pass on to his immediate posterity; and, third, when his family has received the tangible evidence of its historic past, is that evidence to be cherished and held at all cost, or is it to be disposed of as too dear in the light of a changing world?
To solve his problem, Mr. Rice places Frank Dale, a Captain in the Spanish-American War, as the last male member of an old American family in the town which bears his grand-father's name, Dalesford, Connecticut. Captain Dale can no longer run his shoe factory at a profit, and his farm produces next to nothing; seventy-four years old, he wishes to liquidate what few assets he has, move his daughter-in-law and grand-daughters to Florida, and spend his last days peacefully in the sun. When he has made his decision, the embodied ghosts of his progenitors appear to dissuade him, and the result is an extremely poignant and delightful first act.
It is in the second act that Mr. Rice falters. The author weakens his position by choosing that Captain Dale sell the ancestral seat to the "German-American Culture Society," presently launching his characters into vehement tirades of anti Nazi propaganda; furthermore he limits his point of view by making one of Dale's ancestors a rabid Northerner, and another no less a personage than Harriet Beecher Stowe.
The greatest flaw in "American Landscape" is that its main character is something of a man of straw; the farm is unproductive because Captain Dale is a poor farmer; the factory is a failure because in lean years its owner operated out of sentiment rather than on intelligent business principles. In this act there is too much reiteration of what has gone before--too many characters state that their fathers lived and died in Dalesford, that their brothers perished in the war to end war, and too many handsful of warm loam are tossed to the Autumn wind.
But the third act is excellent. Here the shades of the past make their exit; here Captain Dale's will is read to his survivors--here, called away by those who went before him, he begs forgiveness for the weakness of his latter years.
The characters are superbly drawn and rendered; in this lies the strength of the play. Charles Waldron, splendid throughout as Captain Dale, reaches his peak in a nine minute speech which holds the audience breathless; Sylvia Weld and Rachel Hartzell are excellent as Dale's daughters, the stubborn and intelligent spirit of the former nicely balancing the dry, almost cynical, humor of the latter. Outstanding are the portrayals of Isobel Elsom and Lillian Foster as Moll Flanders and Mrs. Stowe respectively. Aline Bernstein's set and costumes are well conceived, and Mr. Rice's staging, though at times over-grouped, is effective.
"American Landscape" is well worth seeing, but until it is cut, one leaves the theatre expecting to find the lobby decorated with American flags and cornstalks.