Actors bring soul and bodies to Olney's 'The Best of Friends'

September 14, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Near the end of "The Best of Friends," one of the play's three characters says: "I declare friendship to be the most precious thing in life." It would be difficult to come up with firmer, more heartwarming proof than this epistolary drama by Hugh Whitemore.

Olney Theatre Center got what might have been considered a bad break with this play. Undoubtedly the theater wasn't aware when scheduling it that the television version -- starring Sir John Gielgud and Dame Wendy Hiller -- would air on Maryland Public Television shortly before the start of the Olney run.

But some of the best praise I can give Olney's "Best of Friends" and director John Going is that, despite its considerably longer length, the production holds up in comparison. In fact, it gains something from the experience of sharing the play's deep, long-standing friendship with live actors, instead of watching video images -- albeit of theatrical giants -- on the small screen.

The play's friendship is between playwright George Bernard Shaw, an abbess named Dame Laurentia McLachlan and the man who introduced them, Sir Sydney Carlyle Cockerell, curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England.

Whitemore based the text on their correspondence and writings, which could make for a rather static evening. (At one point, Shaw even says, "Plot is the curse of serious drama.") Olney's production, however, breathes life -- and action -- into this correspondence, whose subjects range from freedom and religion to travelogues and sex.

Much of that action stems from Richard Bauer's energetic portrayal of Shaw. Wearing a white wig, beard and bushy eyebrows, he spouts Shaw's often epigrammatic commentary in rapid bursts, but manages to keep Shaw's idiosyncrasies just this side of kookiness. His depiction of the writer's bristling spirit is reinforced by Rosemary Pardee's amusing costume designs, which include a motoring cap and goggles; pith helmet, white gloves and umbrella (for Shaw's trip to the Holy Land); a Spanish-style black hat and sash (in which he demonstrates the tango Shaw learned in Madeira); and a gas mask and flashlight (during World War II air raids).

But it isn't merely the animated Bauer who holds your interest. Cockerell may be a less flamboyant character, but Des Keogh makes him the most compelling figure on stage by imbuing him with quiet but persistent feistiness.

And though Pauline Flanagan seemed to be still feeling her way with Dame Laurentia last weekend, she fully conveyed the warmth and wide-ranging intellectual curiosity of this cloistered abbess, who was an authority on Gregorian chant.

Set designer James Wolk has provided the actors with a lovely setting that gives them each a distinct playing area, with a small common area in front, furnished with a white wrought iron garden table and chairs.

But if the play is made up of letters, and Dame Laurentia lived a cloistered life -- communicating with outsiders through a metal grate -- did the three ever actually sit down together in a garden? Dramatically, it doesn't matter; "The Best of Friends" could be slow going if the script and staging were limited to actors reading letters to each other.

Instead, they address each other directly and across boundaries as they probably never did in real life. This demonstrates not only the power of friendship, but also something often forgotten in these days of voice mail, faxes and e-mail -- the vigorous individuality and joy of the dying art of letter writing.

'The Best of Friends'

Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Route 108, Olney

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays; with selected Thursday and Saturday matinees; through Oct. 8

Tickets: $23-$28

Call: (301) 924-3400

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