Written over a century ago, Charley’s Aunt is a wayward comedy that examines the actions of men, both young and old, practicing the art of wooing. Placed in the year 1892, during Commemoration Week at Oxford University, the play examines the pains and pitfalls of a pair of students touched by the madness of Love, as each pursues his maid with abandon and tenacity. The work is the latest this season at Theatre in the Park, where guest director David Henderson uses a character-driven plotline to show the happy and oftentimes bizarre lengths to which the male of the species will go, in pursuit of his heart’s desire.
When the curtain rises, two young men at Oxford University, Charley Wykeham (Jason Justice) and Jack Chesney (Allan Maule), have come together in Jack’s rooms to commiserate over the fact that the loves of their lives are about to leave for neighboring Scotland, perhaps never to be seen again. The two lovely ladies are Charley’s Amy, Miss Spettigue (Athena Reaves), and Kitty, Miss Verdun (Hilary Edwards); but the two are under the watchful eye of Amy’s father, Stephen (Don Bridge), and unless our two heroes can lure them away, neither of the boys will have the chance to pop the question to his lady love.
Chance intervenes in the guise of Charley’s aunt, who has sent a wire to inform Charley that she is coming to see him in time for luncheon today. Jack hits upon the idea of introducing the ladies to Charley’s aunt, Donna Lucia D’Alvedorez, who can act as chaperone to the event, and immediately sends his man, Brassett (Timothy Cherry), with the invitation. Before he can return, another cable arrives, informing him that Donna Lucia can’t make it. This leaves the boys in a quandary until a fellow student, Lord Farcourt Babberly (Matthew Hager), arrives to tell them of his newest enterprise, a play for the stage, in which he must portray an old woman.
“Babbs,” as he is affectionately known, has brought his costume to show his friends. But while he is changing Jack impulsively decides that Babbs can simply fill in for Charley’s aunt. Since the lady in question actually has never been seen by anyone, Babbs in costume can fool them all; it’s only for a couple of hours, after all. That seems plenty of time for the boys to be able to inform their ladies of their intentions.
Impediments come in the form of Mr. Spettigue (Bridge), and Jack’s dad, Colonel Sir Francis Chesney (Randall Stanton). Spettigue is fit to be tied; his daughter and his ward have disappeared from under his nose. The Colonel has arrived to supply sonny with much-needed funds. Both men must be introduced to Charley’s “aunt,” who graciously invites them to stay for lunch. But the ultimate challenge, and possible undoing of the scheme, comes in the form of the real Donna Lucia (Sandi Sullivan), who arrives with her ward, Ella (Ann Cole), in tow to surprise her nephew, after all. Since Lucia is in no way the graying old widow Babbs is portraying, she and her imperious nature intend to get to the bottom of this gross impersonation.
Veteran character actor Timothy Cherry is a hoot as the butler Brassett, who receives the majority of one-liners as he amusedly serves as witness to this madness. Jason Justice and Allan Maule play the young smitten as hilariously straight as can be managed, while Matthew Hager is allowed free reign to ham it up as the “old maid” whom he has been corralled into portraying.
The girls, Amy, Kitty, and Ella, seem to be little more than window dressing; costumer Shawn Stewart-Larson gaily attires and coifs all three with comely and decorous dress and elegantly-styled do’s of the current fashion. Hilary Edwards and Athena Reaves play the objets d’affection with relish, as both are fortunately eager to wed their wooers. Were they not, after all, we wouldn’t be here. But the men, Spettigue and Chesney, become rivals for the hand of the vivacious Donna Lucia; and this development twists the plot as much as does Babbs’ elaborate charade. Sandi Sullivan delivers as the smart and far-from-old Donna Lucia, who has the last laugh on the entire episode as she unspins the tangled web all the men seem intent on weaving.
Charley’s Aunt is designed as a delightful evening’s fare, and TIP guest director David Henderson and company deliver the goods with all the enthusiasm and madcap, love-inspired tomfoolery that the plot requires. The greatest surprise, however, and a welcome one, is the return to the Triangle stage of Don Bridge, who has been plying his trade in much wider circles since the demise of his dearly missed comedy troupe, the Melodrama Theater of Durham. It’s been upwards of 15 years since he last put in an appearance in the Triangle, and it is a pleasure indeed to welcome him back.
Charley’s Aunt continues through June 21st. See our theatre calendar for details.