IT IS tempting to point out flaws and discuss weaknesses in student productions. But when a show is as well-directed and performed as Harvard Summer Theater's production of Traveller Without Luggage, 'critical duty' is really no more than a petty, worthless compulsion to nit-pick.
Written by Jean Anouilh in 1936. Traveller Without Luggage is about a young man who loses his memory in World War I The play opens in the mid-1920s when an attempt is made to reunite the young man with his family, from which Anouilh creates a compelling, but extremely problematic drama.
The drama of the Renaud family is essentially at odds with the drama of Gaston Returning after a 10-year absence during which the Renauds believed him dead. Gaston must confront a mother whose anger and resentment for her son never found relief, a sister-in-law mistress who is less a lover than a woman seeking a man whose betrayal is even more deplorable than her own, and a brother who never had a chance to openly condemn or forgive his sibling. From the perspective of the Renaud family. Gaston is no more than an object upon which to sent hitherto unspoken and repressed old passions, jealousies and condemnations.
Yet, from Gaston's perspective, the Renaud family remains decidedly unreal, a chorus of voices in a buried conscience. In one day Gaston is forced to adopt the guilt of the 18 years he lived as Jacques Renaud, to both condemn and deny the man he once was. The intrigues of the Renand family would certainly be far easier to dramatize, but Director Holly Swartz has opted to focus on the more compelling, psychological drama of Gaston until the tension between guilt, responsibility and freedom reaches a disturbing, unresolved height.
THE unrelenting focus on Gaston (played by Chris Moore) is evident once the lights go up. He wanders awkardly through a room of amorphous red shapes. Gradually, the red cloth is torn off and the Renaud home emerges, but his disorientation in the still-alien household during this opening scene works to underscore Swartz' intention to keep the audience as close to Gaston as possible, revealing nothing to the spectator before it becomes directly significant for the central character.
The Renaud family essentially acts as Gaston's burdensome conscience. The individual emotions of each member are underplayed so that each becomes an accuser and judge to the young man. In previous roles, (Glass Menagerie, Spring Awakening) Kirsten Harris has always managed to be a very believable mother, and as Madame Renaud she is no less maternal but adds a subtle cruelty to her role. This edge is almost ideal for the guilt and resentment she must force upon Gaston. Jennifer Burton, who portrays Gaston's sister-in-law lover is almost sinister, taunting her brother in-law, forcing him to face her, refusing rejection. The malice with which she plays the woman-scorned makes one genuinely pity Gaston Alexander Roe, Gaston's brothers, appropriately distances himself from angry resentment of the rest of the family, confronting Gaston with an honesty and restrained tenderness which is almost perfectly suited for his character.
The tension of each confrontation between Gaston and the Renauds' is relieved, but not diffused, in several minor scenes. Eric Ronis, who plays the butler, is single-handedly responsible for some of the most humorous episodes in the play. He is cynical, sarcastic and almost painfully snide. As a whole, Traveller Without Luggage moves smoothly from scene to scene, escaping the tiresome emotional overload which seems inherent to the story-line of the play itself.
And while there is a definite resolution at the end of the play, the questions of identity, guilt and freedom so carefully raised through the character of Gaston remain, as they should unanswered.