If you’re in the mood for a drawing-room comedy exploring the social habits of the British upper class in the Edwardian era, Bethesda’s Quotidian Theatre Company should be on your list. Quotidian is currently reviving its 2008 production of The Mollusc.
But be forewarned. Although this play does take place in a drawing room and is peopled by upper-class English folk, the play is anything but a serious naturalistic drama about manners and mores. Instead, The Mollusc is so full of whimsy and improbability, you may well feel the gentle influence of George Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde wafting over you as the farce unfolds.
Written in 1907 by Hubert Henry Davies, The Mollusc explores the lives of Dulcie and Richard Baxter, who live with their two young daughters and the girls’ governess, Miss Roberts, who has served the Baxters for four years. Into the stifling, rule-driven atmosphere of that home storms Dulcie’s unorthodox brother, Tom Kemp, fresh from his adventures in Colorado’s mining camps. The play is set in about 1912 in the Baxters’ country house, far from the crowds of London.
At the center of the play is Richard’s problem. His wife is acting strange. She’s not exactly ill, Richard explains to his brother-in-law. She just always wants to lie down. She goes to church only once on Sundays instead of twice. And she drives there, instead of walking.
Tom is not shocked. He solves Richard’s dilemma on the spot. His sister does not have a fatal disease. She is just suffering from “molluscry,” clearly a real thing, not an illusion, in Tom’s mind. To Tom, molluscry is an inherited trait in his and Dulcie’s family. Both their parents had it. It’s not the same as laziness, explains Tom. Instead, like the mollusc that lives in the sea, a person who is a mollusc uses force to resist pressure. Likewise, says Tom, people use tremendous force “to do nothing, when it would be so much easier to do something.”
And so it is with Dulcie. She forces her husband and Miss Roberts to wait on her hand and foot. She refuses to stand and walk two steps to retrieve a book, but instead orders Miss Roberts to get it for her. When hearing from Richard how far Dulcie has sunk into molluscry, Tom realizes that something must be done. After all, he reasons, molluscry can ruin lives, destroy families. He decides to shake Dulcie up and get her back on the path to normal human behavior. But the result is a pitched battle between Tom and Dulcie over the task of arranging flowers.
Marnie Kanarek plays Dulcie Baxter with an intense mixture of high-mindedness and other-worldliness, making Richard and Miss Roberts wait on her hand and foot. Kanarek is so good at transmitting her complete self-centeredness and need to control her environment, that it is possible to tell in advance what her attitude toward the notion of a picnic would be.
When Brendan Murray sweeps in as Tom from Leadville and Cripple Creek, Colorado, he seems like a breath of fresh mountain air, capable of solving any problem. Although he underestimates the depth of his sister’s emotional immobility at first, Murray’s energy never flags as he tries every ruse to get Dulcie into motion and thus save her marriage and herself.
Craig Houk performs admirably as Dulcie’s long-suffering husband, putting up with her demands instead of standing up to them. Emily Gilson is well-cast as the gentle and genteel Miss Roberts, the exhausted young woman who wants to make something of herself but realizes that there is no future for her in this circumscribed atmosphere.
Jack Sbarbori directs this unusual script with intelligence, allowing the characters to reveal themselves deftly. Thus the absurdity of the situation establishes itself slowly, but once it is established, the pace of the production gets and stays lively.
Sbarbori’s set design is a typical Edwardian country house sitting room, with a garden at the rear of the stage, visible through a large picture window. Inside, all the appropriate furniture is in place: Persian carpets, lace curtains, a Victorian sofa, a chess set, mahogany tables, chairs, and many, many paintings.
Stephanie Mumford’s exquisite costume design takes advantage of the stunning details Edwardian dress afforded. Dulcie’s outfits include a mauve chiffon dress; a floor-length, layered white dress with lace sleeves and hem; and a colorful, floral dressing gown. Miss Roberts’ dresses are far simpler, as dictated by her role in the household. Tom looks as though he has come straight from the best tailor in Denver. He arrives wearing a gold vest set off by a brown cravat and bejeweled stick pin.
Although a surface reading of The Mollusc may make it seem to be nothing more than a frothy period piece, a solid production like Sbarbori’s throws into brilliant relief issues that are familiar to our own times; individual independence, passive-aggression, one person’s obligation to another, and a desire on the part of most human beings to connect with others. Add to this Davies’ clear delight in implausibility and absurdity and The Mollusc becomes very modern. It may have been written in 1907, but nothing in it is foreign to 2019.
Running Time: Two hours, plus one 15-minute intermission.
Don Slater, Lighting Designer; Matthew Datcher, Lighting/Sound Technician