Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Crisis and Regret Make For Dark Comedy: Ayckbourn’s “Woman In Mind” comes to Sierra Madre
Playwright Alan Ayckbourn uses the medium of theater to fiddle with perception on a regular basis, and to both comic and insightful effect. In a move reminiscent (at least in this one way) of Neil Simon, his more recent work sometimes lets the comedy take a back seat to the insight. Indeed, that is true of his “Woman In Mind,” now at the Sierra Madre Playhouse.
The piece is a showcase for one actress who stays onstage the entire time, while dual realities float around her. Almost an homage to bad life choices and the nature of middle-aged regret, it is sometimes wickedly, almost guiltily funny as it looks at one woman – Susan – who has created an alternate reality as a shield against what actually is.
At SMP the part of Susan has been handed to Sharon Sharth, who tackles the role with impressive force. Susan finds her life depressing. Married to a minor vicar more focused on the book he is writing about local lore, yearning for her long-absent son, she must house her oddly inept, widowed sister-in-law, tend her small garden and fling herself against the walls created by an ordinary life. What if she was really married to a rich and loving man, with an estate and a daughter and the kind of life one reads about in magazines? Or is that her real life, and all the rest just some sort of nightmare?
Sharth becomes, in turns, dreamy, bitter, sardonic, defensive and disquieted as she wanders slowly toward the ultimate explosion. It’s quite a performance, and it powers both the play and the performances of the rest of the solid ensemble cast.
Rees Pugh gives just the slightest touch of artificiality to the dream husband, a neat trick which defines the show’s balance of characters. David Hadinger’s staunchly dispassionate vicar seems to define reality, even as Anne Etue’s delightfully cartoonish sister-in-law keeps things from becoming too ponderous. Victoria Mayers’ upbeat, upper crust version of a daughter plays in stark contrast to Nathan Hertz’s disaffected son. As a counterbalance to Etue’s somewhat grotesque ineptitude, Angus McEwan provides the slightly over bred lounger who may be Sharon’s brother.
And then there’s Dan Wingard as the doctor who becomes the odd man out, the only person present in both Sharon’s scenarios. In the midst of the general confusion, he underplays nicely, making his character both nonthreatening and yet the constant nudge toward help Sharon keeps trying not to see.
Director Christian Lebano has an obvious love for this material, and a great sense of stage picture which makes this complex intertwining of realities so easily decipherable. Nothing is made too outrageous. Quick entrances and exits, so necessary to the juxtaposition of realities, are seamless and the piece keeps an intensity of pace which makes it all work. Liz Nankin’s costumes define characters quickly, and Matthew G. Hill’s set design creates a garden space with just enough left unseen to allow the audience to travel with Susan between her worlds.
In short, “Woman In Mind” is neither a lighthearted comedy, nor the bitter wallow it could have become. Instead, it balances truth and humor, dreams and disasters, and makes something worth discussing afterward. Still, for those intent upon the more straightforward works SMP has been known for, this will be a mental, and perhaps an emotional stretch. Still, I urge their traditional audience to explore this fine work by one of the last half-century’s most articulate commentators on the human experience.
This is probably not one for children, not because it is so scatological, but because they would find little identification with the issues at hand.
What: “Woman In Mind” When: Through July 7, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 students/seniors, $15 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.womaninmind.com