This artist's life isn't pretty

Review: With unpleasant characters who show no growth during its three long hours, `Stanley' is a play that fails to meet the challenge of its subject.

August 10, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Just about everything about the late British artist Stanley Spencer was eccentric, from his personal life to his paintings.

Pam Gems' play "Stanley" -- produced by the Potomac Theatre Project at Olney Theatre Center -- focuses on the personal, and the picture it paints isn't pretty.

Though competently acted and directed, the nearly three-hour biographical drama is an ordeal peopled with characters who, for the most part, range from unpleasant to reprehensible.

Little known in this country, Spencer specialized in religious paintings, using his provincial village of Cookham as the backdrop, replete with the locals enacting biblical scenes. Gems attempts to cast light on Spencer's belief in "the religious significance" of this earthy milieu and on his insistence that he was close to God, despite a lifestyle that seemed anything but holy.

It was a lifestyle even more unconventional than his paintings. In 1937, after a dozen years of marriage and two children, Spencer divorced his wife, Hilda, and married Patricia Preece, whose relationship with another woman continued after the marriage. Not only was his marriage to money-grubbing Patricia never consummated, but she drove him out of his house and rented it out for the income. Faced with this rejection, Spencer proposed that Hilda return as his mistress.

In director Cheryl Faraone's production, Alan Wade plays Spencer as wimpy and petulant -- an overgrown, self-absorbed child who is precisely the simple soul he fears people think he is.

Wearing a bowl-cut brown wig, wire-rimmed glasses and gray corduroy trousers held up by suspenders, Wade routinely jumps on furniture; he leaps for joy when he first meets Patricia; and he's so blind to his self-image that he strips down to his gray, droopy underwear at the same time he berates Hilda for not making herself more attractive to him. If there is, as he claims, a spiritual side to his sexual passion, it isn't evident here.

Instead, the shared traits of childishness and self-absorption appear to forge the connection between Stanley and Lee Mikeska Gardner's perpetually pouting Patricia. Whining that she cannot live without luxuries, Patricia curls up with a teddy bear, resting her head in the lap of her masculinely garbed companion, Dorothy, played with soft-hearted resignation by Julie-Ann Elliott.

Dorothy's relationship with Patricia, like Hilda's with Stanley, is more like that of mother and child than of equals. Even when Stanley's pursuit of Patricia has driven Helen Hedman's ever-indulgent Hilda to a nervous breakdown, she softens her protestation with, "I know I have a lot to be grateful for " At least in this production, it is impossible to fathom what she ever saw -- and apparently continued to see -- in Stanley.

Although "Stanley" spans more than two decades, no one appears to age in this production -- a flaw, though one that mirrors the characters' lack of any significant emotional growth.

In other respects, Faraone's fluid staging serves the text well. For example, Stanley's desire to head two households is represented by having him flit between separate scenes with Hilda and Patricia, who often remain on stage simultaneously. And set and lighting designer Adam Magazine's use of blank canvases -- whose content is revealed in a series of slides -- lets the audience decide whether we are watching an artist blessed with God-given genius or merely an emperor with no clothes.

"Stanley" is being performed in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Family Theatre Lab, the latest addition to the growing Olney campus, in repertory with a bill of one-acts titled "Havel: The Passion of Thought." Both productions, as well as Olney's next main stage offering, Athol Fugard's "The Road to Mecca," examine the artist's place in society.

It's a challenging subject, but Gems' play is ultimately more frustrating than stimulating. For all its talk about the intersection of religion, art and love, "Stanley" is primarily a portrait of the artist as a spoiled child.

`Stanley'

Where: Potomac Theatre Project at Olney Theatre Center's Theatre Lab, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

When: In rotating repertory with "Havel: The Passion of Thought," 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Aug. 29

Tickets: Free, but $4 guarantees a seat

Call: 301-924-3400

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