Those who flee their past will always lose the race because their past failures will always be waiting at the finish line to greet them. A poignant T.S. Elliot quote wound up in his play The Elder Statesman, which is currently being revived upon the stage of Washington Stage Guild. Directed by Bill Largess, this classic drawing room style drama/comedy follows a man who has attempted to flee his past by changing his name. Of course nothing in T. S. Elliot’s world is ever quite so simple. The ghosts of his past haunt him, but especially when they start appearing as real live people with whom he must interact. A bit on the dry side for a proper drawing room comedy, there are deep-seeded life lessons woven subtly into the text of the play, definitely an evening of pondering what’s been seen by the end of the performance.
Set Designer Kirk Kristlibas crafts a beautiful arch of marble columns that frames both settings of the production. Highlighting the interior of Calverton Manor with a touch of accomplished aristocracy, the columns then double to accentuate the delicate beauty of the ‘rest cure home’ at Badgley Court. Kristlibas keeps the set design extremely simple using only the absolute minimal furnishings — table and chairs — necessary, allowing the performers to exist naturally and Elliot’s work to speak for itself.
Director Bill Largess presents an overall well-polished presentation, though it does have a few hitches and hiccups along the way. The major irritant comes from the inconsistency in the performers accents. It is clear the play takes place in London and the British countryside, however we have a muddling of British accents throughout, and the characters of Monica and Mrs. Carghill fade out of their accents completely for the majority of the production. It is a minor distraction compared to the pacing in the first and the third act; a sluggish drag of long drawn-out conversations. Act II invites a new scene and new characters to the fray, easing the natural flow of the pace. These factors aside, Largess produces a quality classic with the actors he’s chosen for this production.
The story revolves around Lord Calverton (John Dow). Many of the long speeches that occur throughout the production come from Dow’s character, but there are not to be dismissed without a thorough examination for every few lines there are true gems of life’s various wisdoms buried in the subtext, and sometimes even more plainly in the actual text. Dow is an impressive responder. Despite his character spending much of the time lamenting upon his past, when he is forced to listen or attempt to ignore the other characters his facial expressions are particularly emotive. Dow spends the better portion of Act III in a soul-cleansing purge of his past indiscretions which wraps up the production quite nicely – a moment to truly appreciate his subtly complex character.
Adding fire to an otherwise ordinary ‘moment in the life of’ type production is Calverton’s son, Michael (Michael Avolio). Arriving upon the scene as the whiny aristocratic snob, Avolio is able to balance the character’s snobbery with a vehement fight that ensues between he and Dow’s character late in Act II. The passion that sparks during this argument is unmatched anywhere else in the performance. And Avolio’s comical delivery of his crackpot half-baked notions make his character’s existence as a fugitive from reality that much more entertaining.
Existing as the voice of logical reason is Charles Hemington (Kevin Hasser). Appearing in the show only briefly as the fiancé of Monica (Kelly Renee Armstrong) he makes his point and carries his portion of the good advice in a few simple words. Hasser has a pointed approach to the delivery of his sagely advice, words of wisdom beyond his years in a forceful but guiding manner whilst still having a doting loving quality toward his fiancée.
The true peeking moments of the drawing room comedy slide in during Act II in the forms of the ladies found at the rest cure home. Mrs. Piggott (Lynn Steinmetz) is a blistering ray of sunshine that brightens the scene to the point of blindness. Steinmetz’s freakishly exuberant energy sends her bubbly across the stage in the most obnoxious way possible, providing some much needed comic relief from the droll and stuffy first act. Her chipper and perky personality sprawls out over everything like a weed in the garden, destined to inadvertently kill them with her kindness. Steinmetz flitters in and out of the scenes providing a good chuckle even for the characters playing the moment with her.
Opposite of the cheery matron is Mrs. Carghill (Jewell Robinson) who brings her own special breed of obnoxiousness, that of the slightly daft scorned ex-lover. Bringing her own unintentional blackmail chip to the table Robinson has a way of setting the mood to make Dow’s character particularly uncomfortable as she waxes nostalgic about her glory days gone by. A perfectly batty foil to the much more scheming and grounded Senor Gomez (Robert Leembruggen), she haunts Lord Calverton’s past with accidental flare giving her a sharp comic edge as well.
The Elder Statesman will certainly leave you thinking, and does justice to the classical style of Elliot’s writing. It’s a fine evening to spend in the theatre.
Running Time: Two hours and 35 minutes, with two intermissions.
The Elder Statesman plays through May 19, 2013 at Washington Stage Guild at The Undercroft Theatre – 900 Massachusetts Avenue, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (240) 582-0050, or purchase them online.