A `Constant' pleasure at Olney

Maugham's use of substance and froth makes a deft revival of feminist comedy

theater review

February 22, 2007|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,sun theater critic

In the grand tradition of George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen, W. Somerset Maugham was a proto-feminist playwright.

Seeing Olney Theatre Center's gleaming revival of Maugham's The Constant Wife, it's clear that, like Shaw and Ibsen, Maugham believed that if women could attain economic freedom, then all sorts of other freedoms -- sexual, political, etc. -- would follow.

Although this is thematically weighty stuff, director John Going's production of Maugham's 1926 play at Olney is as light as the frothiest comedy. Under that froth, however, is some genuinely thought-provoking content. It's content that must have raised eyebrows when the play debuted 80 years ago, and no doubt did so again when it was revived on Broadway 25 years later, and, quite frankly, it's probably still raising an eyebrow or two at Olney.

FOR THE RECORD - In the photo caption accompanying a review of The Constant Wife at Olney Theatre Center that was published in the Today section Thursday, the actress portraying Marie-Louise Durham was incorrectly identified. The role is played by Ashley West. In addition, Jeanne Bland is the costumiere, and the costumes were designed by Liz Covey.
The Sun regrets the errors.

In The Constant Wife, an upper-class British husband, John Middleton, is having an affair with his wife's best friend, Marie-Louise Durham. But there's a twist -- the central secret isn't the affair itself, but the fact that the wronged wife knows about it.

The portrayal of this all-knowing wife is the linchpin of the production -- especially because it's crucial that Constance Middleton not come across as a smug know-it-all. To the contrary, she must be a woman who is universally well-liked.

Julie-Ann Elliott captures this rare combination of qualities with wit and aplomb. Her Constance has a knack for making people feel at ease, even when she has the upper hand (which is most of the time). She is so self-assured, so thoroughly in charge -- without ever appearing commanding -- that the other characters, not to mention the audience, can't help but admire her.

Some credit for this finely wrought performance no doubt belongs to director Going, whose talent for sophisticated comedies has been demonstrated at Olney on many occasions. In this case, the best example of his sure hand comes in a pivotal second-act scene when Marie-Louise's husband shows up with what he believes is incontrovertible evidence of her dalliance with John -- he has found John's cigarette case under his wife's pillow.

The way Elliott's Constance takes table-turning control of this scene is demonstrated not only in her performance, but in the often wordless reactions of everyone else in the room. There's the disbelief of Constance's mother (the sure-fire Nancy Robinette) and unmarried sister (Allyson Currin, hampered by too much mugging); the fear-turned-to-gratitude of Constance's husband (a suave, but humorously frazzled Michael McKenzie); and the wildly feigned sobs of Marie-Louise (adorable Ashley West, who comically quits sobbing just long enough to look up and register her own iota of dismay).

Even Olney's producing director, Brad Watkins -- a last minute fill-in for a temporarily disabled actor on opening night -- carried out his duties as Marie-Louise's spouse with gusto, as Constance turned this gentleman's initial outrage into apologetic contrition. As an inextinguishable old flame of Constance's, however, John Wojda seems generally ill-at-ease.

Constance believes the perfect marriage is one in which both partners feel the same way about each other at the same time. She and John shared five years of romantic bliss; after that, they've shared 10 years of ardorless devotion. And now that she has the upper hand, Constance does what few married women in the 1920s dared to -- she works until she has the financial freedom to discreetly assert her sexual freedom, but without giving up what she sees as a thoroughly pleasant marriage.

By today's standards, this may not seem like a feminist arrangement. Nowadays, Constance would divorce John; she'd become a business tycoon and there'd be no play. Fortunately, Maugham was both of his time and slightly ahead of it. And, under Going's stylish direction, the fact that The Constant Wife appears a smidge dated merely enhances its charm.

Adding to that charm are the lovely drop-waist dresses designed by Jeanne Bland and the stunningly appointed London drawing room set designed by James Wolk.

"You're a humorist and that always puts men off," Marie-Louise says in her final exchange with Constance. Fortunately for audiences, Maugham was a skilled humorist, and Olney's production makes his sense of humor bubble with mirth as well as meaning.

j.wynn.rousuck@baltsun.com

>>>The Constant Wife runs through March 11 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. $25-$46. 301-924-3400 or olneytheatre.org

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