Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
Certainly her most mellow play, Lillian Hellman's "The Autumn Garden" is, to many of us, her finest, the most delicate, most intricately woven. Why we think so is revealed in Arena Stage's production, which opened Wednesday night for a run through March 6.
The situation finds some members of a family and some longtime friends gathered at a once-elaborate home on the Gulf not far from New Orleans. Its mistree has transformed it into a guest house of genteel atmosphere.
Within the four days of the play, Hellman will reveal the skein of relationships between three generations. The return of an old friend whom hostess Constance had thought she might have married sparks revelations but, importantly, no changes.
For, as the title implies, it is autumn and most of the characters are in their personal autumns. The tone is distinctly Chekhovian. After its 1951 premiere came the McCarthy period of which Hellman has written so movingly in her most recent memoir.It would be some years before she wrote another play but the first writing job of importance she took on after "The Autumn Garden" was the editing of a volume of Chekhov letters.
The tone of the play is voiced by a general whose troublesome wife has prompted him to philosophize:
"So at any given moment you're only the sum of your life up to then. There are no big moments you can reach unless you've a pile of small moments to stand on.
"That big hour of decision, the turning point in your life, the someday you've counted on when you'd suddenly wipe out your past mistakes, do the work you'd never done, think the way you'd never had - it just doesn't come suddenly. You've trained yourself for it while you waited - or you've let it all run past you and frittered yourself away. I've frittered myself away."
This is a speech of mellow understanding, and Hellman credits Dashiell Hammett with its final form. As the general who went to West Point only because he had a passion for math, Terrence Currier gives the speech a fine reading in his best Arena performance.
It is one of many immensely considered performances led by that excellent player, Leora Dana, who last season was so triumphant in the Kreeger's "Long Day's Journey into Night." As the grandmother who also has learned that once life sets its pattern that nothing can be changed, hers is a highly skilled characterization.
With its setting of 1949 in a small, conservative Louisiana town, the code of place and period must be firmly placed. Sometimes criticized for the melodramatic twists on which her plots turn, Hellman here uses an older man-young girl sleeping in the same room as a device for resolution.
Nowadays this has to be handled with immense deftness for audience acceptance. Wednesday night the plot turn seemed more hollow than I recalled it and I must lay a portion of the blame on director Martin Fried's occasional tendency to hype some scenes too high.
Another trap is the character of the returned painter, Nicholas Denery. His passion to rush into the lives of other people propels the action, and it needs, I suspect, a rather quieter charm than Stanley Anderson brings to exuberant Nicky. His selfishness is too patent, too bold, and it is something of a loss, when as his ace is being trumped, the audience applauds.
So, it is a matter of quieter tone this otherwise excellent production still lacks. The individual playing, Anderson's including, is thorough and of high level. Ann Williams' Constance is exceptionally refined and so is the cool calm of Halo Wines as Nick's wife. Laurie Kennedy and Anthony Pasqualini define the gulf of cultures between the young people. Meg Myles, as his mother, Leslie Cass as the general's wife, and Richard Bauer as lost loner complete the major roles as highly individual characters.
Fried does, wisely, try to let Hellman speak for herself and there are few better.