Baltimore's Center Stage is playing Toys in the Attic" concurrently with Arena Stage's production of "The Autumn Garden." Add to these the recent Silver Spring nonprofessional "The Little Foxes" and we have a Lillian Hellman mini-series.
To consider the three plays together is to perceive the great strengths of this playwright and also what some consider her greatest weakness: melodramatic twists.
In "The Autumn Garden," peering neighbors discover that young Sophie has spent the night in the same room where drunken, sensuous Nick has passed out.
In "Toys in the Attic," a conversation Carrie Berniers overhears leads to disaster for her brother, Julian.
In "The Little Foxes," Regina forces Horace, her husband, to struggle fatally up the stairs to get the medicine that might have relieved his heart attack.
These situations can seem artificially manipulated. In the small Louisiana town of "Garden," gossip of the neighbors, who can see through walls, could well destroy Sophie's aunt's plans for Sophie.
What Carrie learns by chance in Toys" leads to Julian's disaster,the loss of his money and physical beating.
The perceptions of the Hubbard brothers and Regina's daughter, Alexandra, are triggered by the questions to Regina as to why Horace was out of his wheelchair, prompting the final explosion of "THe Little Foxes."
All three situations might not have happened, with the result that the plays might not have happened either. Our acceptance of them, our "willing suspension of disbelief," depends considerably on how they are handled in performance. The moments must must seem a wholly inevitable joining of what has gone before.
Here Eric Bentley's definition of melodrama as "the naturalism of dream life" is helpful. A far more placid, mellow play than the others, "The Autumn Garden" rests on the happenstance propinquity of prying eyes. Martin Fried's Arena staging barely lets the seams show.
"Toys in the Attic" appeared nine years after "The Autumn Garden." From the latter, which had a shorter New York run than most of her plays, Hellman must have recognized that audiences preferred her more-dramatic, less-mellow mood. Ironically, the avoidance of the melodrama for which she has been criticized revealed more skill but produced less appreciation.
At Center Stage, Stan Wojewodski Jr. tends to direct "Toys" too literally. Individaully, cases can be made for te way each player attaceks a role, though Deborah Offner's immediate revelation of the child-wife deprives us of watching that character unfolf. The interpretations of Ann Lynn and Lois Markle, as the sisters, and Beeson Carroll, as Julian, can be justified, yet they are played on different levels, not to an ensemble effect. The rhythm is unvary whether Ann has just arrived home and is watering her camellias, whether Carrie is prompting Lily on what to say into the phone or whether Julian had just struggled up the porch, beaten and bloodied. The script has a breathing quality - now quick, now labored - which Wojewodski had missed. The result accents rather than veils overheard conversations and dictated phone warnings.
The obverse of these critical scenes lies in the strong story lines that distinguish Hellman dramas, giving these plays their dramatic fascination. Helliman never fails to produce a strong story based on how her characters inter-react.
The narrative power that holds us is the possibility that problems will be resolved. In "Garden," COnstance had been living a daydream. Though Nick cannot belong to her, as he once promised, h may turn out to have been worth loving. There is still Ned, whom she might marry.But Ned says, "Sorry I fooled you and sorry I fooled myself." Constance accepts her reality: "Never mind. Most of us lie to ourselves, most of us."
Below the surface of the narrative are Helliman's concepts of love. In "Garden", she is reflecting on love's misconceptions. All along Constance misread Nick's long-ago promises, just as, in the end, she loses the htread of Ned's neglected attentions. There is no love to the arrange marriage of Sophie and Fred and there is only worn-out passion between Rose and Gen. Griggs, who finds more stimulus in studing chinese.
In "Toys" love is seen in its destructive aspect that prefers weakness to strength.A successful Julian would rob Carrie of her hold on him; she glories only in sacrificing herself to him. His wife, Lily, would prefer him broken and dependent. Her mother, Albertine, is realiztic. She has fobbed Lilly off to concentrate on her illicit black men, Henry, but she knows exactly what she has done and why.
Separated by their eventful McCarthy decade, "Garden" and "Toys" are linked by Helliman's girlhood memories of her Louisiana family. Through her characteristic reworking of an initial concept, the two real-life maiden aunts, who began the "Garden" situation in its first draft, evolved into the two sisters of %Toys". They had their seed in a personal childhood but became, as Hellman evolved them, quite independent of actuality.
Finally, though the inspirations for the two plays may have been personal, Hellman writes impersonally, at a remove. In their concurrent Arena and Center Stage productions, the two related works add to each other and reveal a perspective on Hellman, the coutious dramatist who veils her heart with her mind.