A spinster orders her nieces around as if she had any right to do so. As if she knew the first thing about love. But what remains buried in the heart of an old maid would surprise and even shock her family members, if they only knew.
Zoe Akins's The Old Maid is an adaptation of the Edith Wharton 1924 novella by the same title. Akins received the 1935 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for this adaptation. It was translated to film in 1939, and starred Bette Davis.
The Broken Arrow Community Playhouse's production of this play, directed by Jana Anderson, relates the story of a young woman and her illegitimate child, and of the impact a proper, moralistic society can have upon familial relations.
The young woman, Charlotte Lovell (Rebekah Peddy Smith) teaches and nurtures young, impoverished children in a dark and crumbling nursery. She chatters about her affection for the children, but it becomes readily apparent that one girl in particular inspires her love.
The child's full name is Clementina (Isabella Smith), but Charlotte avoids using that name in the presence of others, preferring a shorter, more anonymous "Tina." When the child demonstrates affection for Charlotte's sister Delia (Karlena Riggs), Charlotte rushes the child out of the room.
Several other such clues are scattered throughout both the performance and the text, but unless one guesses the mystery immediately, the first two scenes, in combination with the staid social behavior of these 19th-century upper-class characters, block easy emotional access to the play.
The characters' emotions, early on, feel tightly corseted. Charlotte's jealousy of Tina's affections for Delia is the first unrestrained emotion we can perceive.
Near this scene's conclusion, Charlotte and her fiancé Joseph Ralston (Matthew J. Christian) find themselves alone. Their conversation becomes more frank, factually and emotionally, and it's at this point that the play really gets going. Joseph wants his future wife to leave the nursery once they marry, but Charlotte cannot bear the thought of losing Tina, whom she cannot claim as her own for fear of stigma and reprisal.
As the play proceeds, this central conflict remains clear. Each character wants something specific, and each actor pursues it with immediate intent. Peddy especially claims her character's desires as her own, and uses at all times her words and actions to pursue her ultimate goal.
W. Bryan Thompson, who starred opposite Peddy in the recent Theatre Tulsa production of Private Lives, plays Dr. Lanskell with both a firm moral hand and a grandfatherly warmth.
Riggs manages to portray sympathetically a character who, out of petty jealousy, lashes out at her own sister, yet bears a deep sense of duty and tenderness for her as well. Delia Lovell is a character whom one could easily hate, yet one does not. It is a fine line for an actor to walk, and Riggs walks it well.
Christian, as Charlotte's suitor, demonstrates a variety of tactics.
When he tries to seduce her in order to ease her mind, she pulls away from him. Other young actors might continue to use seduction as their character's tactic, but Christian tries to calm her instead, assuring her he knows how a gentleman should act. When this tactic fails, he switches to something new. This moment-to-moment problem-solving process makes his character real for the audience, and is refreshing to see in a young actor.
These performances are all a bit cloudy early on in the play, but clear up beautifully.
The audience may find itself confused again once the second act begins, but this confusion seems calculated. The scene opens more than 20 years after the first act's conclusion. It is natural that one feels adrift after such a leap forward in time. The audience must attend carefully in order to learn about the events that have transpired in the interim.
This temporal displacement, in fact, may have the added effect of putting us in Tina's shoes. What she learns about her past in this act causes her to rethink, in a flash, her entire life. She, too, becomes displaced, and the audience's own initial confusion facilitates sympathy for her.
We can use a little help sympathizing for her, too. The last couple of decades have turned the sweet young Tina into, well, kind of a brat.
And the sweet young Tina is very sweet, and very young. Isabella Smith is only four years old, and her appearance onstage brings to mind the old chestnut, widely attributed to W. C. Fields: "Never work with animals or children." There are two popular reasons for this attitude. The first is that they're too unpredictable to work with, but young Smith knows all her lines. Therefore, it's the second reason that gives her fellow cast members cause to be wary. Through the power of her honest charm, she steals the spotlight without even trying.
At the top of the second scene, she charmingly recites a poem Tina has memorized for her lessons. At the performance I saw, she received deserved applause for this recitation. The scene then shifts focus from Tina to the conflict between Charlotte and the stiff, proper family into which she plans to marry.
The audience's attention, however, seemed to remain on Tina, who pages silently, yet adorably through a book while the adults bicker.
Perhaps this distraction isn't a bad thing at all. As previously mentioned, the play at this early point resists emotional access, and so any assistance the play grants us, even when it's as facile as a darling child, helps.
Donna Beth Ingersoll's self-aware, humorous performance provides similar access. Her character, Mrs. Mingott, is the most uptight of all the onstage personages, and she plays the stuffiness for laughs. Indeed, she doesn't so much speak as announce her lines, and most of these announcements are made directly out to the audience. She comes off as archly pedantic, an approach which suits the character so well that her pronouncements provoke laughter. She implicitly invites us to mock hoity-toity rich folk.
In another play, this performance could be written off as mere "mugging for laughs," but the audience needs these laughs early in this play. Later on, when the core conflict has become clear and the stakes have been raised, her performance loses that element of caricature and becomes more honest. It's a nice touch.
It's still a rough first 15 minutes for this play, though. The over-long scene changes throttle the production's pacing. The director should designate low lighting during these changes. This would allow the actors and stagehands to find their way in the darkness and permit the audience to watch the scene changes unfold. There's no point in using darkness to hide a scene change; we know what's happening. On the contrary, allowing the audience to watch these changes would help to keep its attention from drifting too far.
Another brief lighting note: killing the lights on stage right during the nursery scene would make that place feel bleaker, even claustrophobic. The lights aren't needed on that side, anyway, as no action takes place there during the scene.
Anyway, these brief, initial difficulties give way to clear-headed performances. Key revelations send the characters spinning. The pleasure is in watching them struggle to readjust their values. What are they willing to give up? What is too precious to surrender?
Two core values emerge: love and reputation. In this society, and especially in this play, these values are at odds. The greater portion of the text can be read as a critique of a society which pits these values against one another.
In that regard, The Old Maid is a powerful piece. It is a jarring experience to watch a woman trapped by hegemony, forced to choose between pursuing love and maintaining her reputation. Luckily for our nerves, while the play could have ended tragically, it does not.
On the other hand, it is far from a fairy-tale ending.
In 1935, in the wake of first-wave feminism, such frank discussion of illegitimacy must have been controversial, if not scandalous. Though discourse has come far on that account, The Old Maid remains relevant, and moving, and should provoke further discussion of class and gender conflict.
The Old Maid plays at the Broken Arrow Community Playhouse, 1800 S. Main Street, April 10-12 at 8pm, with an additional Sunday matinee on April 13 at 2pm. For ticket information, call 230-4470.
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