“The Elder Statesman,” a late play by T.S. Eliot — in blank verse, and running about 2 hours, 35 minutes — is the sort of challenge that makes the folks at Washington Stage Guild folks go all wobbly with delight.
Artistic Director Bill Largess and the company have a proud tradition of tackling language-rich “idea plays” by the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Eliot with a mix of glee and reverence. In this case, the playwright gives them much to work with, but also much to overcome.
In his staging, Largess has mixed success airing the mothballs out of Eliot’s 1959 piece. When it works, “The Elder Statesman” becomes a “Downton Abbey”-ish guilty pleasure, albeit a more spiritual and chaste one. The dialogue sounds natural, if archaic. When the show falters, mustiness and verse-iness overtake it.
Veteran actor John Dow energizes the proceedings as the title character, Lord Claverton. He lends a delicious aura of privilege and befuddlement to the retired politician, about to move to an upscale rest home. An unexpected visit from a fellow he knew in his university days forces the aging aristocrat to accept a few hard truths about his early years. And a woman at the rest home reminds him of even more indiscretions. Yet these people from Lord Claverton’s past don’t necessarily seek revenge so much as acknowledgment from a man who has always been emotionally distant.
The first act opens with a stilted tete-a-tete between Lord Claverton’s daughter Monica (Kelly Renee Armstrong), the one person he truly loves, and her young man, Charles (Kevin Hasser). Armstrong and Hasser seem uncomfortable with their prim blank-verse exchanges. In one dreamlike interlude they declare their undying love. Charles says to Monica, “Your words seem to come / From very far away. Yet very’near. You are changing me / And I am changing you.” Not easy stuff for young actors to pull off, though lighting designer Marianne Meadows sets the moment with a nice glow.
Dow’s Lord Claverton is a man counting down the days, weeks, months till he is no more. He tells the young people he has been staring at the upcoming blank pages in the journal he has kept for decades. “I used to jot down notes of what I had to say to people: / Now I’ve no more to say, and no one to say it to.” Dow has no trouble whatever with lines like that.
The butler (the excellent Michael Avolio) enters with the news that an unsavory person has come to call. Federico Gomez (Robert Leembruggen), was a scholarship student at Oxford with the wealthy young Claverton and feels his character was wrecked by his onetime friend. Now he’s back for a chat about what occurred during their college days. Leembruggen, in an enjoyable turn, positively oozes moral turpitude under that Panama hat.
Once at the rest home, poor Lord Claverton gets another shock. A fellow patient, the flirtatious and elegantly dressed Mrs. Carghill (Jewell Robinson), reminds him that in her long-ago days as a showgirl, they were lovers. She feels ill used by him, too. Claverton’s son Michael (Avolio again), a spoiled ne’er-do-well, also shows up to exchange recriminations. And there is the interfering matron of the rest home, Mrs. Piggott (Lynn Steinmetz), whose name all the characters pronounce with both syllables equally and comically accented: “Pig-Ott.”
In Largess’s program notes, he mentions that Eliot based “The Elder Statesman” in part on Sophocles’ “Oedipus at Colonus,” intending it as an autumnal work about “acceptance and forgiveness.” The closing scenes, while forcing Monica and Charles into more awkward poetic exchanges, are nevertheless quite moving.
Jane Horwitz is a freelance writer.
By T.S. Elliot. Directed by Bill Largess. Scenic design, Kirk Kristlibas; costumes, Sigrid Johannesdottir; sound, Frank DiSalvo Jr. About 2 hours, 35 minutes, including two intermissions. Presented through May 19 by Washington Stage Guild at the Undercroft Theatre, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave., NW. Call 240-582-0050 or visit www.stageguild.org.