Ambiguous, political `Mrs. Farnsworth'

Comedy focuses on scandals, cover-ups in privileged class


August 31, 2007|By William Hyder | William Hyder,special to the sun

Marjorie Farnsworth has enrolled in an evening class in creative writing. An election campaign is going on, and the president is seeking a second term. Mrs. Farnsworth, outraged by the way he is running the country, is burning to put her thoughts on paper.

But when she reads the opening passage of her book to the class, it turns out to be memories of a skiing holiday she took 40 years earlier, when she was a student at Vassar.

The connection between that holiday and the election forms the basis of Mrs. Farnsworth, a trenchant and amusing political comedy by A.R. Gurney being presented through Sept. 23 at Howard Community College's Rep Stage.

Gurney introduces us to a husband and wife from the Connecticut gentry and shows how their lives are affected by the secrets and cover-ups in a prominent politician's past.

Mrs. Farnsworth relates to the class how she got pregnant while staying at a New England resort with a crowd of young people from her privileged class. The father was a Yale student, personable, irresponsible and addicted to alcohol. The man's prominent family sent a lawyer to buy her off, and she had an abortion.

Decades later, this man was elected president. Incensed by the lies and deceptions she perceived in his administration, and hoping to spoil his chances of being re-elected, Mrs. Farnsworth wrote a book exposing the facts of his dissolute youth.

Her conservative husband, she says, burned the manuscript. Only the opening page survived. She has joined the writing class in the hope of getting started again.

The instructor enthusiastically offers to help her write the book and sell it.

Then Mr. Farnsworth comes on the scene and we have a he-said, she-said situation. He denies destroying the manuscript deliberately. He also denies many of the other things his wife has said, declaring that she suffers from bipolar disorder and has been in and out of psychiatric care.

He is quite convincing.

Moreover, some of the other students wonder whether Mrs. Farnsworth's eagerness to write her story is not so much political outrage as a desire to get even with the man who got her pregnant. The atmosphere is charged with ambiguity. We're not sure what's true and what isn't.

As in previous plays, Gurney uses what he calls the WASP culture as background and motivation for his characters. The term WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) could apply to many Americans, but Gurney uses it to mean people from the Eastern establishment who have a lot of money and live privileged lives.

He never mentions a certain WASP family that has been politically prominent in recent decades, but the implication looms large in his dialogue.

The code that class of people lives by, the play assures us, includes keeping their transgressions out of the public eye and making sure they aren't punished. Thus Mr. Farnsworth, a prime example of the species, discourages his wife from writing her book.

His reason is not that it would do political damage but that she would be betraying her class. Which is one of the many reasons, Gurney is suggesting, that political scandals are covered up.

Director Steven Carpenter provides a lively and stimulating production, and adds to its impact by staging it in a real lecture hall at Howard Community College.

Heading the cast, Helen Hedman perfectly projects Mrs. Farnsworth's patrician manner and subtle air of superiority.

Mitchell Hebert's Mr. Farnsworth comes off as smart and patronizing but sometimes unsure of himself. We would expect more self-confidence - even a bit of smugness - from a wealthy WASP lawyer.

Jason Schuchman is effectively intense, driven and scruffy-looking as Gordon, the writing instructor, and Grace Anastasiadis, Shelby Sours and Daniel Lee Townsend make convincing students.

Art director Jason Arnold has dressed the classroom appropriately, affixing a chart headed "2003-2004 Academic Calendar" on the wall, writing figures from a 2004 political survey on the board and even resetting the clock to reflect the class's evening hours.

Rep Stage presents "Mrs. Farnsworth," by A.R. Gurney, through Sept. 23. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays, in Room N220 of the Nursing Building at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. An after-show discussion will be held tonight and Sept. 7. Reservations: 410-772-4900 or

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