- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2006

The ghosts of Tennessee Williams and Dashiell Hammett inhabit Lillian Hellman’s seldom-seen 1951 drama “The Autumn Garden”: Mr. Williams in the Southern gothic sensibilities and the combustive atmosphere of booze and suppressed sex. Mr. Hammett (who was Miss Hellman’s paramour for three decades) in the play’s liquored up characters who are determined to live in a yesteryear that probably didn’t exist in the first place.

On the surface, “The Autumn Garden” may seem like “Lily does Williams.” But while we may think of Miss Hellman as a quintessentially tough New York writer, she actually was born and largely raised in New Orleans. Her strange, mean-spirited relatives became the fodder for many of her plays, such as “The Little Foxes,” and “The Autumn Garden” may be the most autobiographical. Set in a formerly gracious mansion turned guesthouse on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, “Autumn Garden” shows humanity at its most disappointed and picayune.

The action takes place in a once-grand parlor where a group of deluded people are either reliving events and romances that occurred 25 years ago, or are desperately trying to latch onto the wrong person. The lady of the house, Constance Tuckerman (Deborah Rinn Critzer), wants to see if the spark is still there with artist Nicholas Denery (Jim Jorgensen), or whether she can get her long-standing beau Ned Crossman (William Aitken) to put down the bourbon and proclaim his feelings. Meanwhile, Rose Griggs (Annie Houston), a fading and thoroughly silly Southern belle, plots to keep her unhappy husband, General Benjamin Griggs (Mark Lee Adams), and the young Sophie Tuckerman (Maura Stadem) pragmatically sees her only chance in life as marriage to a homosexual (Joshua Drew).

Miss Hellman was no wallflower and had an outsized public persona that nearly overshadowed her works. Her characters were likewise larger than life. Given that, one wonders what she would have thought of American Century’s staging of “Autumn Garden.”

While director Steven Scott Mazzola brings out the hidden literary treasures in Miss Hellman’s drama, he is burdened with a cast plainly struggling with the play’s demands. The cast, in turn, are saddled with ill-fitting and unflattering costumes, especially the fuller-figured actors, who appear to have been the unfortunate recipients of hand-me-downs from dowdy mothers of the bride.

In short, the acting ranges from passable to the kind of scenery chewing that makes your eyes burn and your mouth hang open in astonishment. Many of the characters are Mr. Hammett in disguise, and by all accounts the dapper mystery writer was a gentleman, not the scene-hogging thunderclap we see before us.

Mr. Jorgensen, as the dissipated Nick Denery, is supposed to be Mr. Hammett with a paintbrush instead of a typewriter, but the actor gives us a flighty, windmilling, flibbertigibbet character whose irresistible charms remain a mystery to everyone except, we assume, his mother. Denery is a toucher, and women and men are meant to melt under his fingertips — but there is something pervy about Mr. Jorgensen’s portrayal that just has your skin crawling every time he lays a hand on someone.

His partner in showboating is Miss Houston’s florid take on Rose Griggs, which would make both Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor duck for cover. Miss Critzer never gets a grip on the character of Constance, who comes off like a dithering hausfrau.

Linda High has some caustic comic moments as the outspoken old biddy Mary Ellis, but her performance dangerously veers into the realm of Vicki Lawrence’s character from “Mama’s Family.” There is a palpable sense of tenderness and empathy between Miss Stadem’s Sophie and her closeted fiance, Frederick, one of the few grace notes in a plodding production.

“Autumn Garden” is an intriguing play, touched with melancholy, a fine vein of black humor, and characters that are robustly unsympathetic. Miss Hellman had no patience for cowards, and she casts a withering, pitiless eye on the people in “The Autumn Garden,” who just let life happen to them and never summon up the courage to get a hard look at themselves in the light of their past.

**

WHAT: “The Autumn Garden” by Lillian Hellman

WHERE: American Century Theater, Gunston Arts Center, 2700 Lang St., Arlington

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Through April 15.

TICKETS: $23 to $29

PHONE: 703/553-8782

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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