BWW Reviews: Washington Stage Guild Produces Final T.S. Eliot Play: THE ELDER STATESMAN

In producing T.S. Eliot's THE ELDER STATESMAN--plus with their spring 2013 reading of Eliot's THE ROCK--Washington Stage Guild becomes the only theatre company in the world (as far as they can determine) to have produced all seven of Eliot's plays. And as Artistic Director Bill Largess jokingly remarked opening night, Washington Stage Guild is probably the only theatre that would produce all of T.S. Eliot's dramatic works.

Indeed, walking to the theatre through a downtown strewn with construction cranes and ever-trendier luxury condos, longtime Washingtonians may yearn for deeper reverence for the icons of the past. With so much of what we and our elders knew of place and time vanishing before our very eyes, Washington Stage Guild's 27 years of longevity is reassuring to be sure. Through their embrace of under-produced plays of thought and language-and through the forthright support of their learned audience-WSG stands as a theatrical bastion against the fleetingness of the new and the flip.

THE ELDER STATESMAN is an example of the drawing room play genre which grew out of the entertainment habits of the Victorians. Intellectuals gathered in the personal realm of their parlors to present and witness comedies and dramas (set in parlors as well) that explored the compelling moral questions of the day. In fact, by the end of THE ELDER STATESMAN, Eliot--who was born in the US but became a naturalized British subject--passionately puts forth, in his own words, the Socratic edict that "the unexamined life is not worth living."

Significantly, Eliot's plays all draw upon Greek dramas as referents, echoing themes and narratives from these classics; THE ELDER STATESMAN draws upon Sophocles' OEDIPUS AT COLONUS, though the story line of STATESMAN is considerably less devastating, and a whole lot funnier.

Briefly, THE ELDER STATESMAN tells the story of Lord Claverton, a just-retired member of Britain's Parliament, a distinguished gentleman held in high esteem by the common folk. Born of comparatively high station, he has carefully crafted his political career though now, retired from it, he declares he misses not at all the machinations of politics. A widower, he has two adult children, including his devoted daughter Monica who lives with him, placing his well being, seemingly, before her own romantic happiness. She is in love with Charles Hemington, a perfectly sensible young barrister as devoted to her as she is to her father. Lord Claverton's son, Michael, we learn, is a disappointment to his father--a Victorian failure-to-launch sort of chap who dreams of opulence and other accouterments of prestige without the pesky burden of toil, or "wealth without work," as Gandhi described it in his list of the seven deadly sins.

On the eve of Lord Claverton's decampment to an elite rest home, he is visited by the cryptic and quasi-creepy Federico Gomez, whom he knew as a young college man and who, by all appearances, has something on Claverton. Though his intentions bode ill to all concerned, Gomez who, using an adopted Spanish name, has become a wealthy patrón in Central America (neverminding the grotesque inequities on which we now know such colonial economies rested). He insists that all he wants from Claverton is his friendship. He chides Claverton about his moral failings, cryptically alluding to a sinister incident in their shared youth.

The plot further thickens when, at the rest home, Lord Claverton encounters Mrs. Cargill, to whom he was betrothed in his youth and with whom he had been much in love. The engagement was broken, however, by the meddling of Claverton's father who considered the future Mrs. Cargill beneath his son's station. The young woman was brokenhearted, yet went on to marry well, and is now a wealthy widow. She too confronts Lord Claverton about his ethical character, reminding him that he had put ambition before love, tainting the moral ground on which he built his success in life.

Through all this Monica stands by her father, though--much to his redemption--Lord Claverton anguishes about the bad faith on which he has based his adult life. Indeed, this concept of "bad faith"--most associated with existential philosophers Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir--seems to aptly describe Lord Claverton's late-life need for redemption. Summarized by Wikipedia (existential postmodern organ that it is), "bad faith" is "the phenomenon where a human being under pressure from societal forces adopts false values and disowns his/her innate freedom to act authentically."

T.S. Eliot famously converted to Catholicism (in its Anglican form), and in his 20s and 30s was a devoutly religious man who embraced the teachings of the faith with the fervor of the convert. Being neither a Catholic nor a philosopher, I cannot parse the exigencies of Catholic grace or existential bad faith, but as giants of intellectual history of the early 20th century, Eliot and Sartre were clearly wrestling with some of the same weighty issues explored in THE ELDER STATESMAN, despite the fact that they are generally considered to be on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Without revealing the plot twists that bring THE ELDER STATESMAN'S moment to its crisis, suffice it to say that over the course of three acts Eliot brings the matter around to moral character. There is a great deal of discussion of ethical choices, past and present, and for lovers of thought and the English world of letters, THE ELDER STATESMAN is a banquet of discourse.

Director Bill Largess has assembled a cast of experienced actors, many of whom have worked together before at WSG and who are clearly enjoying this witty jaunt through the English countryside. John Dow plays Lord Claverton as a man in keen distress and running out of time for reconciliation. He is visibly unnerved by the arrivals of his one-time intimates. As the doting daughter Monica Claverton-Ferry, Kelly Renee Armstrong brings innocence and purity to the role, an idealized and morally pure young woman skilled at keeping her more adventurous side demurred. As her worldlier and more pragmatic fiancé Charles Hemington, Kevin Hasser brings a solid propriety and authentic inlovedness to the role.

Robert Leembruggen brings the relaxed languidness of his adopted tropical home to the role of Federico Gomez. He is no hurry to disabuse Lord Claverton of his false presumptions, and the two veteran actors banter Eliot's text about like two philosophical old men. As Mrs. Carghill, Jewell Robinson brightens the stage with the same sharp-witted, coquettish charm with which no doubt her younger self enchanted Lord Claverton during his Oxford days. She looks every bit the part of a bright, attractive woman, now of a certain age, for whom the male of the species has long been the object of her attentions.

As the flighty rest home director Mrs. Piggott, Lynn Steinmetz brings a perky, chirpy cheeriness to what one assumes to be the rather dreary environs of the rest home. She and Robinson provide much of the comic relief of the show, playing their characters broadly and winnowing out the humor in every interaction. And as the ne'er-do-well son Michael, Michael Avolio, who also played the manservant Lambert, brings a slippery and comic panache to this underachieving, rather spineless young fellow.

Set on a circular platform reminiscent of an Arabic marble mosaic, the production makes good use of its minimal set by Kirk Kristlibas, with simple table and chair sets denoting the changes of place quickly and effectively. Prosperous period costumes by Sigrid Jóhannesdóttir fit each character's particular qualities, with special applause for the flirty, ladylike outfits of Ms. Robinson. Lighting by Marianne Meadows evoked the changing moods of the production, and sound design by Frank DeSalvo Jr. heightened the ambient sense of place and time.

Director Bill Largess has imbued the production with linguistic resolve. It is a highly verbal play of ideas. One can well imagine THE ELDER STATESMAN being staged in the London parlors of the early 20th century filled with erudite women who come and go talking of Lord Michelangelo or some other member of Parliament. For lovers of ideas and language forged at the cusp of modernity, THE ELDER STATESMAN will certainly deliver. For theatregoers who want their dramas downer or dirtier, however, with less talking or more brawling, this final T.S. Eliot play will not be their particular cup of tea.

Running time: 2 ½ hours with two intermissions. Plays April 25 to May 19, 2013 at The Undercroft Theatre of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church: 900 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC. Tickets/Info: 240.582.0050, info@stageguild.org, or visit www.stageguild.org.

Photo credit: C. Stanley Photography


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From This Author Elizabeth Bruce

Elizabeth Bruce, co-founder of Sanctuary Theatre, is an educator, theatre artist, and novelist who has worked with children and artists for over 30 years. She (read more...)