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Picking up characters just when external events promise a crisis can make a writer's job easier because it guarantees a dramatic situation. In Autumn Garden, Lillian Hellman does not depend on circumstantial crisis. Instead she has placed ten people in a once-fashionable home outside New Orleans, and lets them develop the play by well-exposed attempts to define their relationships and to regear their lives. Almost everyone fails; only a European girl, Sophie, is young and tough enough to extricate herself.
As for the summer residents at the deteriorating mansion run by Constance Tuckerman, General Benjamin Griggs desperately wants a divorce from his frightened, trivial, once-pretty wife. She needs him enough to make him stay, and the great departure he had believed in, dissolves:
"At any given moment you're only the sum of your life up to then... That big hour of decision, the turning point in your life, the someday you've counted on when you'd suddenly wipe out your past mistakes, do the work you'd never done, think the way you'd never thought, have what you'd never had--it just doesn't come suddenly..."
There is little fatalism here, and no implication that people can never realign themselves. What Miss Hellman seems to say, however, is that there comes a point after which you can't blame circumstances for the way you are.
Nick Denery returns to the Tuckerman home, an amateur artist who married money on his first European escape 23 years before. Denery is not only insensitive to the real difficulties of the people around him, but to the damage that time does to those who are not living well. A busy, opportunistic boor, Denery causes a small-town scandal that wrecks Sophie's engagement; yet throughout his spree, it is difficult for Constance to reconsider the love she felt for him years ago.
One by one the residents are exposed, clinging to small illusions and scapegoats. The influence of Chekhov on Hellman's play has been pointed out before, and it is strongest in the way characters reveal themselves without self-description, and in the brevity of exposition. Unfortunately, the dull set at the Charles did not enhance the sense of a crumbling milieu that Autumn Garden evokes, and the three-sided stage robbed the audience of 33 per cent of the performances.
That was not wholly tragic; some of the cast proved adequate and none inspired. Donald Somers, who was sympathetic enough as Griggs, mumbled the important speech quoted above, and, trying to play a quiet man, turned him into a weak one. As Nick Denery, Herbert Nelson was loud and disruptive but he seemed to lack the attractiveness that real scoundrels have. Playing Ned Crossman, a regular summer guest who has passed the point of returning to his love for Constance, Leon Shaw showed off too much strength, savvy and health.
Director Michael Murray did better with his women. Kathleen Sullivan was a fine Sophie despite an unidentifiable accent; Ann Shropshire and Esther Benson made the fears of Rose Griggs and Constance Tuckerman convincing and sad. Dorothy Sands, playing a wealthy old woman who is aware of how wrong interfering in other people's lives can be, is sprightly without belying her age. It's unfortunate that she wins some laughs just because old people aren't credited with any acumen. (It's cute when that little old lady says something perceptive by accident.)
Murray has done Boston a service in choosing Autumn Garden, but he hasn't done the play justice. The off-again-on-again Southern accents turn into an inexplicable hodge-podge, and the third act is thoughtlessly staged like a Virginia reel, as couples pair off for their final promenades.
One thing critics have failed to make clear: a room play is not necessarily a soap opera. The single room is convenient even more than it is conventional, permitting both realism and synopsis. The playwright has the prerogative of using concentrated situations, and shouldn't be criticized for fully exploiting what is to begin with a limited form. In the simplest terms, Miss Hellman sticks to one room here because she wants to save time.
Autumn Garden tackles a couple of big illusions, and its dialogue is never wasted chit-chat. Miss Hellman indicates that love has been over-advertised. In her work it never takes on mystical qualities or solves life's problems upon arrival. Similarly, talent by itself means little; accomplishment is a truer index. After a certain stage of the game, latent talent will not bloom and the magic turning points won't arrive. The author's technical refusal to base the play on a crisis situation is beautifully suited to this theme.
It is a masterful work, disappointingly performed at the Charles, but not ruined.
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