Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Picture of Autumn

In the middle of the last century, playwright N.C. Hunter was known as “the English Chekhov”, an appropriate title judging from his 1951 family drama A Picture of Autumn, which opened in its American premiere last night at the Mint Theater. Director Gus Kaikkonen and a for-the-most-part capable cast give life to the themes of aging, memories and a clinging to the past.

 A Picture of Autumn is a sensitive and often comic portrait of a once aristocratic family’s attempt to gracefully accept the changes that time enforces. Charles and Margaret Denham (Jonathan Hogan and Jill Tanner, in photo) are in their 70s, living in disarray in their decaying ancestral home with Charles’ 80-year-old brother, Harry (George Morfogen), and their demented servant, Nanny (Barbara Eda-Young).  With 18 bedrooms, 60 acres and little money to hire help, Margaret is ready to accept the inevitable when her elder son, Robert (Paul Niebanck), returns to England after several years abroad with the intention of convincing his parents and uncle to sell the estate to a college and move to smaller, more manageable quarters.

“It’s like living in a badly kept museum,” Margaret acknowledges.

Designer Charles Morgan does the place justice, having created one of the largest sets I’ve ever seen at the Mint, with a sitting area before a fireplace and mantel, dining room and imposing circular staircase that illustrate what a grand home this once was. It is largely through Margaret that we learn of the dry-rotted wood and the unkempt grounds. What we see looks both elegant and comfortably livable, making it understandable why leaving is so hard, especially for the brothers who have lived nearly their whole lives there.

Tensions about moving take shape in Act Two, as do the family dynamics that make the decision such a challenge. Memories bubble up right and left, with one having a lovely visual incarnation as Robert’s stepdaughter, Felicity (Helen Cespedes), descends the grand staircase in a 40-year-old blue gown last worn by Harry’s wife, who died all those years ago at the estate. (All the costumes by Sam Fleming are first rate.) She stands out as a sparkling school girl who represents the future while appreciating the elegant past, the bridge between both worlds.

Harry is the hardest to convince, but by Act Three he is seated with the rest of the family, surrounded by draped furniture and partially packed boxes, waiting for the taxi that will take them to the train and a new life.

“Nobody appreciates it, of course, but this is actually a historic moment,” he proclaims with his gallows humor. “This is the fall of the House of Denham. There has been a Denham at Winton Manor since -- when, Charles?”

Charles tells him 1762.

“Since 1762,” he continues. “And now we pass, shuffling out of our inheritance with no more ceremony than if we were cattle being driven to the slaughterhouse.”

Margaret tries to quiet him, but he goes on.

“Thank goodness, I’m perfectly capable of looking at the thing objectively. Let us at least be conscious of what we are doing,” he says, looking around the room. “It’s a fine house -- solid, well-proportioned, light and spacious. We shall not look upon its like again. It was built in the days when Englishmen appreciated good craftsmanship. Even if we have capitulated at last, we may, I suppose, be proud to have delayed its surrender to the barbarians. The spirit was willing, though the flesh was weak. . . Lower the flag and let the enemy advance.”

But as it turns out, departure may not be as imminent as it seems. Hunter has a few surprised in store, although the ending is poignant no matter how it goes.

 A Picture of Autumn has held up well, although it’s a bit long (two hours and 20 minutes) as plays of that era tended to be. The third act definitely drags. I could have done without Nanny, a stock character sent in for laughs. As portrayed by Eda-Young, she could use more work with dialects coach Amy Stoller because she mostly sounds American, when she isn’t sounding cockney or Irish. The two other actors, Katie Firth as Robert’s wife and Christian Coulson as his younger brother, are fine in their rather predictable roles.

The show is scheduled to run until July 14, although Mint productions tend to get extended. This one deserves to.

For information, visit www.minttheater.org.

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