© Scott Rylander: (L-R) Lucy Akhurst, Susan Porrett, Gretchen Egolf
"There are no second acts in American lives." So said F. Scott Fitzgerald. Written by Lillian Hellman, one of the 20th century's most successful female playwrights, The Autumn Garden touches on Fitzgerald's notion of midlife disillusionment – a show replete with a large cast, great female roles and a storyline that also alludes to many of the themes preoccupying the stage in post-War America.
Set in the Deep South in 1949, Constance Tuckerman (Hilary Maclean) works in her guest house, along with her niece Sophie (Madeleine Millar). Her residence is usually occupied by guests who stay the duration of the summer. Mrs Ellis (Susan Porrett) brings some Wildean charm to the proceedings with lashings of dry wit. Meanwhile, her daughter Carrie (Gretchen Egolf) is besotted with her Freddy (Sam Coulson). But like Violet Venable in Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer, she hasn't acknowledged to herself the full measure of Freddy's proclivities, especially as he is 'engaged' to Sophie.
The other guests in the play are also unhappy in their own way. Ned (Mark Aiken) has loved Constance since they were at high school, but she still holds a torch for her old beau who left without saying goodbye. General Griggs (Tom Mannion) has married Rose (Lucy Akhurst), a woman much younger than himself. Once upon a time she may have been enthralled with his war exploits as Desdemona was with Othello's. But Rose's gregariousness has long since worn thin on Griggs, with divorce an appealing alternative. As for the latest guests Nick (Mark Healey) and Nina (Madalena Alberto), Nina has unfortunately had a lot of experience with her husband's affairs. Nick, meanwhile, has an agenda – to see his old beau Constance, who he left 20 years ago...
One of the things that preoccupies the characters in the play is the way they are viewed by the community and the company they keep, especially in the case of Freddy. The play itself was written in 1951, when the McCarthy (Communist) 'witch hunts' became a national pastime and Hellman herself fell under scrutiny of The House Un-American Activities Committee. On closer inspection, there are clues as to the time period when the play was written, which bleed through into the narrative. Sophie, who was brought by her aunt from recently-liberated France to the States, takes a more measured approach than most of the characters in the play, doing and (not) saying what she must to survive in times of adversity. Constance's neighbours are the unseen, but all-important judges whose opinion the characters value and fear. For all of characters' desires to do what they want, reputation is everything.
© Michael Davis 2016
The Autumn Garden runs at Jermyn Street Theatre until 29th October 2016.