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Few theatergoers, I suspect, are all that familiar with Harold Brighouse's 1915 comedy of Victorian manners Hobson's Choice. Movie mavens may recall with fondness Charles Laughton's drunken encounter with a huge, puddle-reflected moon and his subsequent (and marvelously cinematic) fall down a coal-chute in the 1954 David Lean adaptation. Musical theater aficionados may likewise call up dim recollection of the 1966 Broadway musical Walking Happy, about whose star John Simon memorably remarked, "If this is Norman Wisdom, I'll take Saxon Folly."
It is with thanks, then, that we turn to PlayMakers Repertory Company, whose current, scenically spare production emphasizes Brighouse's rich dialogue and precise characterizations and returns a forgotten treasure to glory.
Hobson's Choice is also a cunning curtain raiser of sorts for PRC's next undertaking. For, as with King Lear, the Lancashire bootmaker Henry Horatio Hobson — a small-time tyrant — must contend with three querulous daughters, a divided kingdom, and inexorable descent into helplessness. Unlike Shakespeare's monarch, however, Hobson is able to discover the true nature of his wayward daughter's fidelity before irreparable harm is done and is thus spared having to carry her lifeless form to cries of "Howl, howl, howl!" That's the difference between comedy and tragedy.
The play's bustling, forward drive keeps the events moving at a brisk pace yet allows for a reflective contemplation of its characters, and a quietly dawning realization that these Victorian figures (the period is, roughly, 1886) are far more modern than may at first be supposed. Hobson's eldest, Maggie, contemptuously referred to as an Old Maid, is something of a feminist prototype; and her final triumph over her father's patriarchy is a victory for all disenfranchised daughters.
But Brighouse was no polemicist, and his characters are more than mere symbols. The play's final scene carries with it a darker, more contemporary notion: the father becomes the child, the daughter his caregiver. (Maggie's sisters, as one with Regan and Goneril, deny this second-rate Lear any succor.)
Blake Robison, the production's director, gives us Hobson's Choice neat. My only cavil is his tendency toward stasis, which robs the actors of some physical characterization and blunts the effect of later moments that require a contemplative stillness for their impact.
Still, the cleanness of Robison's staging is perfectly realized in McKay Coble's minimalist set design, a thing of beauty in its own right. Coble's spare set (in concert with Peter West's evocative lighting and Russell Parkman's peerless costumes) strips away the overfed clutter of Victorian verisimilitude, replacing it with a striking simplicity which provides just enough detail to place the action and allow us to revel in Brighouse's splendid stage language.
A ladder, some curved stools, a rack of display shoes, a fitting seat, a large hanging boot icon, and a trapdoor, below which the bootmakers toil in anonymity, represent Hobson's bootery. A brick façade hangs above, which will eventually fuse with a rising cellar to create the impoverished storefront of Hobson's eventual rival Will Mossop. A beautifully detailed period street along the upstage wall, complete with plank fence, worn advertisements and the residue of old posters, completes the detail. An addition fillip is Anthony Reimer's delicious Victorian band music, which punctuates the action between scenes with witty aplomb.
The casting, with a single exception so small it barely merits comment, is perfection. Robert Breuler's expansive Hobson is everything one could wish — imperious, disdainful, petty, misogynist, sodden, and oddly endearing at once. Matching him blow for blow is the indomitable Rachel Fowler, who manages the enviable feat of making Maggie both holy terror and curiously likeable, never more so than when playing Pygmalion to the Galatea of Jeffrey Blair Cornell's adorably reticent Will Mossop.
As Maggie's siblings Alice and Vicky, Carrie Heitman and Karen Walsh move from latent to explicit snobbery without a hitch. As the sisters' equally social-striving beaus, Kenneth P. Strong and Jeffrey Meanza deftly slide from potential caricature to Hobson's worthy opponents. In smaller roles, Julie Fishell, Adam Sheaffer, David Adamson and (all-too briefly) the superb Ray Dooley, lend the imprimatur of absolute thespic authority.
It's doubtful we'll see a more intelligent, thoughtful, or fulsome comedy this season than this sunny, if black-tinged, saga of upward mobility and the downward spiral of dipsomania. This Hobson's Choice is choice indeed.
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Hobson's Choice 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.