Arthur Winslow is a crusty old fellow who turns out to be entirely lovable, and "The Winslow Boy," which contains him, is a crusty old piece of dramaturgy that turns out likewise.
There are many possible grounds for objecting to Terence Rattigan's play, which opened at the Kennedy Center last night in a production that hails from New York's Roundabout Theatre. If you pride yourself on having a sensitive meter for old-fashioned dramatic formulas and strategems, you will have a field day (or field night) counting up all the flimsy ingredients in this stiff-upper-lip British melodrama -- the stock characters, the contrived subplots and the implausible transitions. But if you're willing to turn the meter off and look at what lies underneath, what you'll find is a splendidly harmonious and often exhilarating production of a play with surprising strength and subtlety.
"The Winslow Boy" was based on the true case of a 13-year-old boy named George Archer-Shee, who, in 1908, was expelled from the Royal Naval College at Osborne for stealing and forging a five-shilling postal order. George claimed to be innocent, and his father, the manager of a Liverpool bank, decided to appeal the ruling -- or, as the play has it, "publish his innocence." He sought out Sir Edward Carson, the barrister who would later prosecute (and convict) Oscar Wilde. And Sir Edward, after satisfying himself of the boy's innocence, went into battle against one of the most formidable enemies in modern Christendom -- the "soulless oligarchy" of indifferent bureaucracy. As Alexander Woollcott later described it, this was combat "that takes all the courage, patience and willpower a man can summon to his aid."
Eventually Sir Edward won a hearing for the boy through an obscure legal maneuver called a "petition of right," and the case became a cause celebre, with the whole British public waiting breathlessly upon the outcome. (In the play, written in 1946, these anxious legions are represented by an invisible but quite audible army of newsmen camped on the Winslow family's front doorstep. At one point, the patriarch decides to give them a statement and consults the barrister -- here called "Sir Robert Morton" -- about what he should say. "I hardly think it matters, sir," replies Sir Robert, a fairly crusty customer himself. "Whatever you say will have little bearing on whatever they write.")
Despite the title and the additionally confusing fact that Remak Ramsay, as Sir Robert, has top billing, the father is the central figure of this play. And Ralph Clanton gives a stirring but delicate performance as this domineering, driven man, who invests everything in a struggle that looks peculiar to some, petty to others and hopeless to almost all.
Clanton bears more than a passing resemblance to John Houseman, with the minor distinction that he is a real actor, not just another ugly face. Hence he captures not only the steely authoritarianism of a father who frightens his own sons, but also the discomfort and -- to use the dreaded word -- the vulnerability of a man who sees his family going to shreds as the struggle is launched gets more and more out of control.
By rights, Giulia Pagano should probably have second billing as the suffragette daughter, Kate. She gives an equally satisfying performance, despite having to bear the brunt of the play's lamest and most predictable subplot, in which her fiance worms out of their engagement because of the scandal. This awkward passage has a saving grace, however, in that it plays a role in Kate's much more complicated adversary relationship with Sir Robert, whom she perceives as an opportunist, a political reactionary and a "supercilious, sneering fish."
Which brings us to Remak Ramsay's intimidating and invigorating portrayal of Sir Robert -- a terrific performance that almost justifies the billing. Sir Robert doesn't come along until the first act is nearly over, but Ramsay makes the most of his late entrance, fidgeting impatiently, rolling his eyes and then interrogating the young alleged thief with all the sympathy and understanding of Torquemada in high gear. But Sir Robert, too, is not what he first appears, and Ramsay brings nobility and depth to the character before the night is through. Having played a string of brittle Britishers in American productions of works by Tom Stoppard, Somerset Maugham and others, Ramsay has richer human material to work with here, and it would be hard to think of a better choice for the role, no matter which side of the Atlantic you were casting on.
The rest of the cast, guided by director Douglas Seale, sets a high standard of ensemble playing -- particularly in the category of American actors undertaking British characters. One might wish for greater subtlety in the renderings of the playboy son, the snooty fiance and the harried housemaid, but these hopes could just as easily be aimed at the playwright as the players. One small performance deserves special notice, however -- James Higgins' portrayal of Desmond Curry, the cricket-star-turned-solicitor who pines after Kate Winslow (and apparently pines in vain). It would be easy to make Desmond a ludicrous stereotype of over-the-hill futility, so it is all the more impressive that Higgins makes him plausible and sympathetic.
Coming fast on the heels of "The Little Foxes," "The Winslow Boy" is another specimen of the well-made, slightly wrinkly play characteristic of theater at the Kennedy Center. Someday, surely, the fare will grow more varied and provocative. In the meantime, it is refreshing to see the same old thing done with skill for a change.
THE WINSLOW BOY by Terence Rattigan; directed by Douglas Seale; scenery by Roger Mooney; costumes by Jane Greenwood; lighting by Martin Aronstein; with Remak Ramsay, Ralph Clanton, Giulia Pagano, Elizabeth Owens, David Haller, James Higgins, Ann MacMillan, Lee Toombs and Michael Tylo.
At the Eisenhower Theater through May 23.