There is a kind of unalloyed pleasure at watching a small thing perfectly done. So it is with the first offering in the University Theatre at N.C. State TheatreFest 2003, John C. McIlwee's beautifully staged production of The Hollow by Agatha Christie.
The play, hitherto unknown to me, is on the surface one of the late Dame's cunningly crafted melodramas. But something else is afoot, an added dimension of rue whose light melancholy lifts the play well beyond the accepted style of the Whodunit. (Although as usual with Christie, the first half is more of a "Who'll-Do-It.")
The younger members of the Angkatell family (curiously — and rather like the Royal Family — they're mostly cousins) are haunted by their vanished youth and Ainswycke, the ancestral home that provided them their only brief experience of happiness. This is particularly true of the impecunious Midge and the soignée sculptor Henrietta who observes, poignantly, that at Ainswycke she was "happiest in the loveliest way of all — when one doesn't know one is happy."
Henrietta is secretly involved with the unfathomable Dr. John Cristow, a physician who loathes the sick and whose brutish behavior towards his prim, idiotically adoring wife Gerda is finally explained when, remembering an old love affair he admits, "How was I to know how irritating devotion can be?" That this old love, the flamboyant actress Veronica Craye, has conspicuously taken up the cottage next door and that Henrietta's perpetual suitor, Edward Angkatell, has a marked disliking for Cristow seasons this already heady brew.
Almost everyone in The Hollow suffers obsession or disillusionment. The weekend's host, Sir Henry was a former governor of an Indian province, cheated of his chance to be viceroy by the end of the British Empire. His serenely impervious wife Lady Angkatell, meanwhile, is so permanently addled that Sir Henry must act for the local police inspector as her interpreter; the niceties of intellectual logic do not intrude on her process of thought. Henrietta is both cool and cruel, as the statue she's contrived of her lover's wife proves. And the murder victim's dalliances cause him to appreciate at last the person who is, ironically, about to kill him.
This may all be hokum (a Christie specialty), but it's done with such style, verve, and feeling that it almost passes for bracing, visceral entertainment. Much of this is due to splendid playing by a largely stellar cast.
As the butler Gudgeon, Fred Gorelick brings to bear a pair of amusingly hooded, professionally disinterested eyes and an emulation of the great Eric Blore; at times he almost seems about to coo, as Blore did to Edward Everett Horton in Top Hat, "Sic transit gloria mundi, sir?" He also engages the inexperienced maid Doris (Ida Bostian) in a progressive series of servile vignettes, a little ballet of impatient noblesse oblige. Equally apt is Lynda Clark's Veronica, so perpetually "on" that, when recognized by the inspector she is stopped halfway in the act of seating herself but recovers with a seductive pause. Her explosion of jealous rage at her former lover is pure hyperbolic melodrama, but God, does Clark know how to ring from it every last possible change.
The luminous Dorothy Brown is a perfect Henrietta. Vibrating with agitation and ennui, Brown's Henrietta is nonetheless the only character in the play with the grace to be warm, relaxed, and honest with Gerda — the very woman with whose husband she's sexually involved. As the blissfully inane Lady Lucy, JoAnne Dickinson makes irrationality a style unto itself. Her voice raised to a timbre and musicality that recalls the late Coral Browne, Dickinson gives the proceedings a shot of high spirits, especially when turning her own police interrogation into a kind of giddy social game — Lucy's personal version of Charades. As the proud, rueful Midge, Nicole Quenelle has some problems with projection but manages to be terribly moving not once, but twice. And Collette Rutherford's Gerda is revelatory, at once repressed and mousy to a painful degree and wildly unpredictable.
The leading men fare less well in comparison, and only Jon Pheloung's Dr. Cristow and the Edward Angkatell of Gregor McElvogue acquit themselves especially well. The Sir Henry of Farrell Reynolds barely registers. Inspector Colquhoun is a pivotal role, but David Hudson defeats it. His physical presence is uncertain where it should be sharp and incisive, and he has a tendency when in doubt to place one limp hand at his belly. As Detective Sergeant Penny, David Klionsky at first seems to be doing a British version of Columbo in pantomime. When he speaks, alas, it's all over.
Corky Pratt's set design is a bloody marvel. His 1953 drawing room features Art Deco inlaid windows opening onto a terrace garden with a miniature tree in a stone pot and ivy climbing the outer walls. The interior is decorated with elegant cabinets, busts, statuettes, and blue China, a salmon sofa, rose and burgundy chairs, all set off by light olive green mottled walls trimmed with a tan marbled wainscoting. Terri L. Janney's lighting, likewise, gives the production its autumnal sheen, a time of "remembering" with twilight of a deep, rich blue in one scene and ominous, overcast skies the next.
The director, John C. McIlwee, also doubles as costume designer, and he's in his element with the period clothing: Henrietta's stunning crème pantsuit; Lucy's flowered gardening frock and black evening dress with brooch; and for Veronica, two equally ostentatious ensembles: one that barely encases her in a little black dress with gloves and lace décolletage, and another in which she is swathed in satanic red from head (cloche hat) to toe (ruby pumps) and in-between (what turns out to be a very important handbag.)
But it's in his direction that McIlwee exhibits the surest touch. The opening scenes of obligatory exposition are accomplished with fluid, lively movement, making them exhilarating instead of merely bearable, as is usually the case with moments like these. We get the sense of a house well oiled, socially and domestically, and of relationships already long established. McIlwee places equal emphasis on "big" moments (the unexpected arrival of Veronica, the joyous announcement of an engagement, the teased-out denouement) and "small," especially the important scenes of revealing dialogue between two characters with which Christie peppers the play.
For some unknowable reason, McIlwee is seldom given his due as a director. With the honorable exception of this journal's editor, most local critics work themselves into rhapsodies over McIlwee's set and costume designs and ignore his contributions as a director of plays. There appears to be something willful in this, especially when, as has often been the case, certain reviewers have left the impression that a McIlwee production otherwise praised to the skies has, somehow, directed itself.
In the interest of disclosure, I should confess that I have long known the director, have worked with him on a number of projects, and hope to continue that association well into the future. Only two other directors (Roy C. Dicks and Fred Gorelick) have staged my work with as much love and acuity as John McIlwee, and it's a distinct pleasure to be able to salute him in this way.
University Theatre at N.C. State presents TheatreFest 2003 — The Hollow (8 p.m. and June 7, 11, and 13), Funny Money (8 p.m. June 5, 6, 12, 14, 18, and 21 and 3 p.m. June 8 and 15), and Deathtrap (8 p.m. June 19, 20, and 25-28 and 3 p.m. June 22 and 29)-NCSU's Thompson Theatre, Raleigh, NC. $33 season ticket ($27 students and seniors, $25 NCSU faculty/staff/alumni association member, and $15 NCSU students). $13 single ticket ($11 students and seniors and NCSU faculty/staff/alumni association member, and $6 NCSU students). 919/515-1100. http://www.fis.ncsu.edu/University_Players/theatrefest2003.htm [inactive 9/03]. To download TheatreFest 2003 brochure in PDF format: http://www.fis.ncsu.edu/University_Players/files/TFest%20Brochure2003.pdf [inactive 9/03].
Corrected (lightly) 6/9/03.