- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 3, 2001

A middle-class British woman with an unfulfilling life imagines she has another family, one that exists just to dote on her, in Alan Ayckbourn's "Woman in Mind."

She dreams up this idyllic clan — which swills champagne and dresses in tennis whites — after knocking herself on the head by stepping on a garden rake.

It's sort of a "Through the Looking Glass" experience in a play that seems reminiscent of a lot of great works, only without their greatness.

As she approaches middle age, Susan (Kathryn Kelley) is losing her grip on sanity (Blanche DuBois sound familiar?) amid the recriminations of her self-absorbed husband ("Long Day's Journey Into Night" rings a bell). Their son, a specterlike figure who joined a cult and hasn't spoken to them in two years, is finally coming home (in shades of the ending of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?").

Although the cast does an admirable job in this production at Round House Theatre, Mr. Ayckbourn just doesn't trust the audience to understand what's going on. He instead spells everything out with painful obviousness.

Why create dramatic tension between Susan and her husband, Gerald (Rick Foucheux), when long scenes full of familiar dialogue will do?

They're not happy. Why? Well, Gerald, a vicar, is consumed with writing a book about the history of the parish. They never have sex anymore, never do anything together anymore. As Susan explains by reciting a list of domestic chores, Gerald fails to recognize any of her contributions around the house.

Susan also must contend with a widowed sister-in-law who wants to be a devoted homemaker to her brother and recalls her years of service to her late husband and mother. Trouble is, she can't even make a cup of coffee. She's a bitter woman trying to summon her husband from the dead.

In the play's longest-running gag, sister-in-law Muriel (Catherine Flye) strikes fear into the heart of everyone each time she suggests going near the kitchen. As with much of the humor in the play, it's funny, but wears thin before the curtain falls.

When her son arrives home, he confesses he's left the cult and gotten married and plans to move to Thailand. Susan presses him about why he didn't bring his bride with him, and Rick (Christopher Crutchfield Walker) tells her she always has embarrassed him around his girlfriends and he didn't want to subject his wife to a visit.

By contrast, Susan's alternative family is a jolly good bunch. Her husband, Andy (Christopher Lane), tells her, "Unfortunately, there is only one of you." He's a hunk — and he cooks, too.

Lucy (Kosha Engler), her daughter, adores her. When Lucy announces she's going to be married, there's no talk of sheltering her fiance from her mother — she's convinced he will just adore Susan.

Susan's brother Tony (Jerry Richardson) is always quick with a joke or a toast to the family. He makes a lot of quips, at which family members all throw back their heads and laugh. This is a group that makes a lot of quips. You would think that if you invented an alternative family, you would give it something more interesting to say. Also, that Susan would need more than being waited on hand and foot to feel fulfilled. The limits of her suffering are no worse than the limits of her happiness — each is equally small, and seemingly without much consequence.

As Susan begins to think she can't control this family or simply summon it when she's feeling unloved by her real family, a menacing atmosphere creeps into the play. When Gerald's book is found burned in his study, she's convinced that her other husband did it.

She has tried going to the doctor (Bill Largess) for help, but he becomes part of the fantasy world.

By the end of the play, Susan's reality and fantasy worlds have blended together like paint running down a canvas, and she's left — as the doctor was when he discovered her unconscious in the garden — speaking gibberish.

The last couple scenes of "Woman in Mind" have a manic energy that comes a little too late. To borrow from some other works, it goes out with a bang not a whimper — although what has come before it is merely sound and fury.

{*}{*}WHAT: "Woman in Mind"WHERE: Round House Theatre, 12210 Bushey Drive, Silver SpringWHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Feb. 18TICKETS: $21 to $28PHONE: 301/933-1644 or www.round-house.org

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