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If Eugene O'Neill had thought of it first, the theme of "The Sacred Flame," now at the Peabody Playhouse, would have been tortured into a drama of epic grandcur. It has all the essentials of an O'Neill magnum opus; there's murder, and adultery, and starved sexuality, and problems of passion galore. It might very well have been worked up by America's foremost tragedian into a magnificent scream-fest, with an hour out for supper and a year's run on Broadway.
But fortunately O'Neill was in the bathtub when the angel of light came around looking for a playwright to write "The Sacred Flame," so the modest angel alighted gracefully on the somewhat rounded shoulders of Somerset Maugham, and whispered in his ample ear her idea for a great tragedy.
The story concerns a hopeless cripple, who is in love with his beautiful wife, but who married her before the airplane fell. She pities him, and all her love is for his virile brother. She shows the innocence and lack of premeditation of her passion by conceiving a child; but before the crippled husband--far too crippled to be a father--finds aught amiss, he awakes one morning, dead. Everything would have been all right had not the perspicacious nurse discovered that an overdose of sleeping powders had killed him. This Nurse Wayland had loved the handsome cripple in her own starved, soulful way. She accuses the adulterous wife, but lives to be convinced that "Chastity is a very good thing, but not the whole of virtue." Who killed the cripple, and why, is skillfully unfolded in a tense final act. Everybody is good friends at the end, and the world goes on in its good old pleasant way.
The play is neither first nor second rate; it is in the no-man's-land between. Equally high praise can scarcely be given to the acting. While there are some moments of inspiration, there are many moments of poverty of expression and banality of action. Nor in the prompter's raucous whisper in the midst of a scene of tense emotional strain conducive to the highest enjoyment. However, the sterling work of Clara West Butler as Nurse Wayland, and of Mary McDonald as the old-bodied, young-souled mother of the cripple, inclines one to wink at a multitude of venial sins in the remainder of the cast.
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