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THE PLAY'S THE THING--or at least it ought to be. But there are times when a performer so transcends the script that the work seems to be just tagging along for the ride. Jack Lemmon's virtuosity in Bernard Slade's Tribute is a current example, and now Irene Worth has come along to provide another in Corinne Jacker's new play After the Season.
Worth has been proclaimed "the best actress in the world," though Siobhan McKenna would be my own choice. Still, Worth is indisputably in the top handful, and I have never found her less than impressive whether in classical or modern drama. The performances that she and Eva Le Gallienne gave in the 1957 production of Schiller's Mary Stuart are two of the half dozen supreme feats I have seen an actress achieve on stage.
Now, at the age of 62, Worth has retained all her incandescent power and dazzling skill. In After the Season she plays the erratic and disturbed wife of a national political figure. Asserting that "something stinks in the U.S.A.," she is paranoid, sometimes hallucinatory, and always fearful, seeing conspiracies everywhere and given to phoning the press about her suspicions.
For all the disclaimers, the role is clearly modeled on the late Martha Mitchell. Instead of Attorney General John Mitchell, we have Crispin Stewart, a powerful Pennsylvania senator with Presidential ambitions. The Mitchells' young daughter, Martha, has been turned into Alice, a grade school science teacher in her 20s. The last character in the play, Dave Castle, is the senator's cool, climbing, clean-cut legal aide, not too unlike John Dean.
Despite her two Northwestern degrees, her awards for stage and television scripts, and her experience as a teacher of playwriting, the author has not fashioned a very good drama. She aims high and has tried to grapple with serious matters, but the writing is diffuse and the characterization thin. Moreover, the pacing is jerky; there is just too much stop-and-go. This is in the text itself, and should not be blamed on the director, Marshall W. Mason, who has done his best.
Looking and sounding a lot like Alexander Scourby, Charles Cioffi deserves praise as the senator, though the role remains confusing and enigmatic. We get a clearer picture of his long-dead father. The daughter (Shaine Marinson) is cipher, and the aide (David Rasche) only a little better. This leaves the mother as the sole rounded character, and Irene Worth never fails to hold out interest--whether singing, preparing food, looking out the window, lying on a couch, or blowing out 17 candles.
The two-act play is laid in a spacious kitchen (handsomely designed by John Lee Beatty), part of the Stewarts' vacation home off the Connecticut coast, during a storm one September afternoon. The author's symbolistic handling of the hurricane and its eye is heavy-handed, and some of the interpolated humor falls flat. But she has managed to come up with some strong verbal images, and one remarkable long speech about a neurosurgeon's discovery of a worm in the brain.
Make no mistake, though: this is Irene Worth's show, and she is a marvel. Her work here will be remembered long after the season.
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