Alan Bennett, well known for his Tony Award-winning play The History Boys takes us back to his unique relationship with Miss Shepherd (a tour-de-force by Sally Anderson) in the 1960s. Her van (really several vans) was found taking up residence at Bennett’s Camden Town home (up against his home) and resting in his garden – almost like a mini Grey Gardens – until she died in 1989.
It’s this Odd Couple relationship that is explored in Bennet’s play The Lady in the Van, now playing at Unexpected Stage Company and it’s an unexpected pleasure – although a bit too long.
Bennet employs two ‘Alans’ in the play: Adam Downs (Alan Bennett) and Bob Sheire (Alan Bennett 2) who have wonderful chemistry together. One Alan is writing the play as the younger Alan recreates his relationship with and the events that occurred during the ‘Miss Shepherd Years.’ And what crazy years they were with Ms. Shepherd having a certain rancid ‘air’ about her and stubbornness, and the refusal to listen to anyone, especially from a frustrated but overly-caring and obsessed Alan. And there are plot twists as the mystery of who this mysterious Mary Shepherd is (It’s too neatly resolved at the end).
Frankly, there were too many ‘turd’ jokes, but, I couldn’t help but pay close attention so I could learn who this fascinating – yet overly-assertive – and eccentric ‘guest’ was. And watching Anderson command the stage was a pleasure, as she made every word, every line, every gesture, every scene come alive.
And like a good sitcom, there are ‘neighbors’ who pop in and out to add to the craziness of the situation. Here Brandon Mitchell (Rufus) and Dawn Thomas (Pauline) provide some well-needed comic relief. There are actually very cute together. Another ‘popover’ is Tiffany Garfinkle who steals the spotlight when she is on the stage as a social worker with a heart of gold. You just want to hug her. And Mark McCarver is the perfect ‘stranger’ and Anthony Hacsi is fine as a frustrated relative.[I’m not giving away anymore about him].
Which leads us to Director Christopher Goodrich who is so fortunate to have this talented group of actors in the cast. An luckily for the audience, Goodrich lets them make their characters very human and relatable, when they could have easily turned them into cartoon characters.
Set Designer Steven Deluca (he’s also the Technical Director) and Props Master John Barbee put us into Bennet’s home and office, living room, garden, and garage, and, of course, the infamous and odor-filled van. Working with Lighting Designer Peter Dowty, it’s all very effective.
Because music, especially Chopin, plays an important role in the show, Sound Designer Elliot Lanes plays a Chopin piece over and over before the play begins. I don’t know if the repetition was intentional, but it did parallel the repetition of Ms. Shepherd’s daily routine and the music she hears in her mind and hums over and over. And what I most appreciated was that the music didn’t drown out the actors or ‘take over.’ It became a subtle, yet powerful symbol of the power of music to bring joy to an otherwise sad and painful life.
Kudos to the cast and to the designers and technicians and the audience for enduring a sweltering performance. The air conditioning was turned off (I am told that the problem has been rectified), and I felt like I was schvitzing with Miss Shepard in that God-awful van. And I didn’t see anyone leave during the performance, an that’s credit to a terrific cast, especially that lady in the van who grabbed us from her first entrance and never let go until her final breath.
Running Time: Two and a half hours, plus one intermission.
The Lady in the Van plays through August 11, 2013 at Unexpected Stage Company at Randolph Street Theater – 4010 Randolph Street, in Silver Spring, MD, For tickets, call (301) 337-8290, or purchase them online.