Review: THE STANDBY LEAR Reveals The Story of A Powerful Marriage

The play is the latest installment in the company’s New Play Exchange.

By: Aug. 12, 2021
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Review: THE STANDBY LEAR Reveals The Story of A Powerful Marriage

THE STANDBY LEAR comes to Live Theatre Workshop (LTW) as the company's latest installment from the New Play Exchange, a streamlined database of scripts by living playwrights. Written by John W. Lowell (THE LETTERS), it's another two-hander that extends LTW's foray into the actor's personal world -- an apparent effort to create a transparent human behind the character, as it were.

Riding the remarkable momentum of an otherwise middling comedy (David Mamet's A LIFE IN THE THEATRE), the company's current play unveils a form we find considerably more polished than Mamet's sketchy experiment. Indeed, Lowell's language is better suited for actors navigating a credible throughline (presuming high stakes as the preferred challenge to every serious actor).

Lowell's 90-minute one-act investment is compelling enough: Augie, a veteran Equity actor, is the understudy to the star who plays Shakespeare's most daunting role of King Lear; Augie has been told, on short notice, that his turn is up as the star has suddenly fallen ill. Having slogged through the entire script mostly by his lonesome, Augie feels dreadfully under-rehearsed and is terrified of the occasion. He has serious doubts about his ability to step into what amounts to his greatest opportunity as an actor.

Augie's wife, Anna, is a retired actor with a sterling résumé. She quit her career to help sustain her marriage to Augie, whose modest income proves sufficient to keep their homelife solvent. The arrangement allows the couple ample time to manage their respective burdens while staying engaged in each other's routine. We've seen that it gives Anna some freedom to make an occasional visit to the theatre for an intimate lunch break with her husband, and perhaps lend assistance when Augie seeks prompting or feedback on his acting choices. Anna is whip-smart, a seasoned artist who's quick to recall historical anecdotes and invoke the likes of Ibsen and Wilder. Pull a quick one and she's ready with a savvy retort. As a brilliant actress, it pleases her to no end to be of service to Augie's creative process.

Review: THE STANDBY LEAR Reveals The Story of A Powerful Marriage

Anna turns out to be indispensable in facilitating Augie's Lear, but more importantly she provides the anchor to Augie's wobbly effort to reclaim his self-esteem. A good chunk of Shakespeare gets a good polish, but the rehearsal itself is a mere conceit to unearth the real and urgent drama before us: the arc of a solid and beautiful marriage that endures life's travails.

Here's an endearing couple in their 60's, battle-tested and firmly attuned to each other's impulses. And here's a couple of distinguished actors in David Johnston and Molly Lyons, primed to disentangle the complex yarn that Augie and Anna have woven for decades. It's a rich undertaking, the sort of job that director Rhonda Hallquist could only entrust to her chosen cast.

Johnston is a charming and vulnerable Augie. He embodies the self-effacing tenderness that must have captured Anna's heart many years ago. We're also privy to Augie's fierce moments of defiance, a bold attribute that Johnston eagerly snags and brandishes like a deadly weapon. At his peak, Augie channels Lear in hysteria, refusing to go on stage at the risk of destroying his reputation, only to be drubbed into reality by Anna's furious dissent. Molly Lyons roars with Anna's resolve, denying Augie easy access to that exit: If he gives up on himself, then he might as well give up on the marriage because she wants no part of his self-inflicted madness.

Frankly, I'd be up for seeing another performance later in the run, as these two fine actors are certain to tweak their beats and plumb their subtext. As opening nights tend to be the genesis of greater discoveries, this reviewer hopes for a deeper communion between Johnston and Lyons. For while individual performances are first-rate, one hopes for a transcendental immersion -- the organic merging of energies a couple earns from sheer surrender to each other's devastating influence. Once that happens, gone will be units of action where one must work harder than necessary to elicit one's desired outcome.

There lies Shakespeare's allure, that magisterial paragon of eloquence. When you mix it up with the Bard of Avon and find yourself doing him justice, it takes a splendid effort to de-role in time to shift your attention to the more familiar present. Hence the flitting tendency to perform rather than connect. It must be said that a wider distinction should be made between the actors' moments as a married couple and their moments as Shakespeare's loftier characters. Though stripped of the Bard's exalted verse, Augie and Anna are potent characters with a consequential impact on those seeking clarity of intention: They are every couple who've been through the gauntlet and come out enriched and fortified.

Review: THE STANDBY LEAR Reveals The Story of A Powerful Marriage

All that said, it must be pure joy for Hallquist to direct actors of this caliber. The intimacy of a small arena provides a veritable setting for a couple to wrestle with each other's shadows, and Lowell's ferocious dialogue pulls out all the stops to create characters with spine.

It's no walk in the park, this business of storytelling where every other line is yours to deliver. Beyond the text, actors are faced with the reality of staying accountable to an audience who expects you to remain on stage for the entire duration. It's an apt metaphor for Augie and Anna's long journey into the night: When backed up against the wall, there's no way in hell they were going to let each other head for the exit. Marriage, after all, is not for the faint of heart.


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