University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill alumnus and former PlayMakers Repertory Company actor Blake Robison will make his PRC directorial debut with Hobson's Choice. This classic comedy by English playwright Harold Brighouse (1883-1958) will preview at 8 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, officially open at 8 p.m. Saturday, play a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee, and then run Tuesday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. through Dec. 21 in the Paul Green Theatre in UNC-Chapel Hill's Center for Dramatic Art.
Robison currently serves as the artistic director of the Clarence Brown Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the head of the University of Tennessee Department of Theatre. He previously served as the artistic director of the National Shakespeare Company in New York City and the Vermont Stage Company in Burlington, Vermont.
"When David Hammond called me to suggest Hobson's Choice as a directing possibility," Robison recalls, "I vaguely remembered that there had been a revival at the Atlantic Theatre Company in New York several years ago starring Brian Murray and Martha Plimpton. However, I had never seen or read the play myself. It's one of those plays that moves quickly and takes the audience along with it. In short, [it is] a good read and a great period acting piece for a company like PlayMakers."
Robison adds, "I love language plays and character comedies. Hobson's Choice is both. The action of the play lies firmly in its Lancashire dialect and in the honest quirkiness of its characters.
"I have spent much of my directing career working on Shakespeare plays — most recently Macbeth, Twelfth Night, and As You Like It — and the attention to language and communication is similar," says Blake Robison. "The characters need language to work through their various comic dilemmas. This kind of verbal interplay is fun for the actors and exciting for the audience."
Hobson's Choice: A Lancashire Comedy in Four Acts made its Broadway debut on Nov. 2, 1915 at the Princess Theatre, moved to the Comedy Theatre on Nov. 8, and ran for a total of 135 performances. The show made its London debut on June 22, 1916, at the Apollo Theatre. Since the, there have been numerous rivals of Hobson's Choice on both sides of the Atlantic.
There have also been at least three British motion-picture versions of Hobson's Choice — a 1920 silent film, a 1931 talkie, and director David Lean's 1954 masterpiece, starring Charles Laughton as hard-drinking widower and tyrannical middle-class boot-shop proprietor Henry Horatio Hobson, John Mills as his frequently abused lower-class employee Will Mossup, and Brenda De Banzie as Hobson's eldest daughter Maggie, who is stung when her father characterizes her as an old maid, unlikely to find a husband. Maggie then rebels and shocks her father and two younger sisters — and flouts societal conventions — by suddenly courting and marrying the heretofore passive Mossup, galvanizing him into action, and then helping him become her father's chief competitor. (There is also a 1983 American made-for-television movie starring Jack Warden as Hobson, Richard Thomas as Mossup, and Sharon Gless as Maggie.)
In late 1966, Ketti Frings and Roger O. Hirson (book), James Van Heusen (music, and Sammy Cahn (lyrics) transformed Hobson's Choice into the Broadway musical Walking Happy. It opened on Nov. 26, 1996, at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre; ran for three previews and 161 performances; and was nominated for six 1967 Tony Awards®, including Best Musical.
In 1999, the Royal National Theatre in London announced that a panel of actors, directors, playwrights, other theatre professionals, and journalists had named Hobson's Choice as one of the top 100 20th century plays written in the English language. Inclusion in the prestigious "NT2000 One Hundred Plays of the Century" list is just one of many accolades accorded to Harold Brighouse's comic masterwork.
The Birmingham Evening Post called Hobson's Choice "a cracking, character-rich, beautifully crafted play; a masterpiece." And a Variety reviewer claimed, "The flouting of social convention and the overthrowing of tyranny are both enduring comic themes, and they are delightfully blended in Harold Brighouse's sturdy, rarely seen 1915 play."
"Hobson's choice" is a term for "an apparently free choice when there is no real alternative," according to Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary. Merriam-Webster also traces the term's etymology back to English liveryman Thomas Hobson, who died 1631, and claims that, theoretically, Hobson's livery-stable customers were allowed to choose their mounts but, in reality, Hobson "required every customer to take the horse nearest the door."
Director Blake Robison, set designer McKay Coble, lighting designer Peter West, costume designer Russell Parkman, sound designer and composer Anthony Reimer comprise the PlayMakers production team for Hobson's Choice.
"The action takes place in Hobson's Boot Shop and Willie Mossop's cellar parlor in Victorian England, circa 1886," Robison explains. "In our production, we have stripped the normally cluttered Victorian interiors down to their bare essentials — a few chairs, a chaise lounge, etc. In doing so, we focus the audience's attention primarily on the characters and the language of the play. Upstage, we have created a sort of period street from which characters enter and exit."
Robison adds, "The lighting is designed to focus the audience's attention on the main action of the story. There are important class differences between Hobson's well-to-do shop and Willie's basement. The lights will amplify these differences, while creating mood and atmosphere appropriate to the story."
Blake Robison suggests that the PRC audiences pay particular attention to the show's vividly detailed Victorian costumes. "By stripping down the scenery," he notes, "most of the period style in our production is conveyed through costume. It is a wonderful time for clothing, featuring bustles, high-button suits, and rich colors and textures. The audience should have a wonderful time identifying and following the characters through the many details of their costumes."
Robison says, "Henry Hobson (PRC guest artist Robert Breuler) is the middle-class owner of a successful boot shop in Victorian England. A widower, he is ruled over by his three daughters. Maggie (PRC guest artist Rachel Fowler), his eldest, keeps everyone in line, until Hobson tells her that she is an old maid and unlikely to marry. She immediately pairs up with their lower-class shoe-hand, Willie Mossop (PlayMakers company member Jeffrey Blair Cornell), and establishes a rival boot shop, effectively putting her father out of business.
"The interplay of these characters, working toward the inevitable choice of the title, makes up the comic action of the play," claims Robison. "Along the way, we are entertained by a variety of quirky Victorian characters who become tangled in the life of the Hobson family."
Other featured performers include PRC company members David Adamson, who plays Timothy "Tubby" Wadow; Ray Dooley, who portrays Dr. MacFarlane; Julie Fishell, who plays Mrs. Hepworth; and Kenneth P. Strong, who portrays Jim Heeler.
"Hobson's Choice is a delightful mixture of character, romance, and social commentary," claims Blake Robison. "Striking the right balance between these elements is both fun and challenging.
"On one hand, there is the peculiar romance of Maggie and Willie, with its Pygmalion-like story of social mobility. These scenes are full of charming comic touches and sincere human pathos.
"On the other side of the spectrum," says Robison, "Hobson's descent into alcoholism and potential ruin contains a social statement that mattered to the Victorian public and still resonates today. It's wonderful to work on a play that encompasses so many facets of the human condition."
Blake Robison claims, "The director's first responsibility in any production is to tell a story. Scenery, costumes, lights and sound are tools at our disposal. Ideally, these elements frame the action of the play without overwhelming it, so that our attention remains on the actors.
"If the balance is successful, then the audience will feel that they have entered into this world for a couple of hours, lived with these characters, experienced their dilemmas first-hand. Hobson's Boot Shop is a microcosm for the changing Victorian world. Through its inhabitants, we see the changing mores of the late 19th century. We see the rapid development of urban life and the secularization of society. And we see the results of woman's social emancipation.
"Within this context," Robison says, "a lonely man must come to terms with the changing world and a young couple comes to terms with each other."
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Hobson's Choice Wednesday, Nov. 26, at 8 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, Nov. 28-29, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 19, at 2 p.m.; Tuesday-Saturday, Dec. 2-6, 9-13, and 16-20, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 7, 14, and 21, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $20-$32, except $40 opening night (Nov. 29) and $10 Tuesday Community Night. (Note 1: PRC offers discounts for seniors, students, and youth.) 919/962-PLAY (7529) or firstname.lastname@example.org. Playmakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/season/index.cfm?action=hob. Project Gutenberg E-Book of Hobson's Choice: http://ibiblio.org/gutenberg/etext04/hbsnc10.txt. Internet Broadway Database (1915 Premiere): http://www.ibdb.com/production.asp?ID=8231. Internet Movie Database (1954 Film): http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0047094/. Note 2: There will be a psychoanalytic discussion of Hobson's Choice, led by Paul Brinich, Ph.D., following the Dec. 14 matinee.