"The Old Maid" as all good little playgoers know, has awarded the golden pat-on-the-back of the Pulitzer Prize Committee and the reverberations filled Times Square. Now that the customary hue and cry has died out, it is possible to point out that, no matter what the worth of its claim to the prize may be, "The Old Maid" is an absorbing, soundly constructed and beautifully worded drama which has been lifted to the top of the list by the incomparably excellent acting of Judith Anderson and Helen Mencken.
During the performance it is impossible not to be completely immersed in the production, but the cooling effect of retrospect shows that merit of the offering lies perhaps more in the work of the two leading ladies than in the virtues of the manuscript. Zoe Atkins' dramatization of Edith Wharton's novel produces a quietly accelerating story which rises in the last act to genuinely fine drama but the play's success must be attributed in large part to the lucid, mature, and movingly sincere talents of the Misses Mencken and Anderson.
In 1830, after waiting two years for Clem Spender, her true love, to return to her, Delia Lowell marries one of the wealthy merchant Ralstons. Six years later her cousin Charlotte comes to her asking for help. Charlotte is about to marry the other Ralston, but on the verge of the wedding learns that her finance will force her to give up the day nursery which she has been running as a pretext to allow her to care for Tina, the child which she has secretly borne to Clem Spender. Delia helps her by offering to suport her and the child if she gives up the marriage. The story new revolves itself into the struggle between Delia and Charlotte for the affection of Tina, who does not know that she is Charlotte's child. Lenient, generous, always spoiling the girl, Delia wins her love, while Charlotte's loving but demanding care turns the child against her. The conclusion is carefully worked out and the play ends on a strong chord of gentle but profoundly stirring tragedy.
Even if "The Old Maid" is not the best play of the year it is certainly an highly absorbing production which is doubly effective because if avoids the pitfalls of melodrama inherent in the plot and grows subtly but directly into an intelligent drama, of human relations.