By K Michael Moore
Amana - What is it that drives us to that one person who has the singular power to make us the most crazy, frustrated, and darkest person we can be? I mean that one person who can turn us into a monstrous version of ourselves, tempt us to rage or childishness with the simplest of words – but also turns on some pilot light deep inside us, igniting not only those frightening fires but also simultaneously heating and creating the entire world for us. I am certainly generalizing here; please forgive me. But I know very few people who don’t have “that” someone, lurking like a specter of both love and fury, somewhere in their lives. Maybe they married them. Maybe they divorced them. Maybe they had a torrid affair with them in college and ran like hell, never looking back. For some, that person pops in and out of their lives, simultaneously tossing everything into chaos and bringing back an element of passion and joy that had gone away in their absence.
Old Creamery’s current production of Noel Coward's Private Lives explores the idea of that someone - not with a scalpel but with a typically Coward-esque battering ram. The show is a flippant, indirect series of jabs that keeps the audience cringing and laughing throughout.
The story shows us the roller coaster relationship of Amanda (Saffron Henke) and Elyot (Jim Van Valen), who divorced five years ago after a brutally and mutually aggressive marriage. By chance, both arrive to the same hotel, on the same day, to celebrate their respective honeymoons with their respective new spouses – Sybil (Laura Ernst) and Victor (Eric Hedlund). In the way only theatre can require, they of course happen to be in rooms adjoined by a shared balcony.
Upon this horribly embarrassing discovery, both attempt to convince their new love to flee immediately, and both are denied, causing very “Coward-ly” melodramatic arguments that result in Cybil and Victor separately storming off, conveniently leaving the awkward couple alone to reacquaint themselves. After much bickering and back and forth, they abandon their new marriages and sneak off to Paris, once more reminded of their passion and true love for one another.
This, of course, leads us to Act II, in which the two of them carefully dance around all the things they can’t stand about the other, and themselves, and invites us to see both the best and the worst of their fiery, unstable, dangerous, and passionate love... in all of its beauty and horror.
I won’t spoil the climax or reveal any spoilers – see the show to find out the end, it’s well worth it. Suffice to say that the show is funny and poignant throughout, though it doesn’t give an easy answer or try to provide a “right or wrong” argument. It’s Noel Coward, and it presents the audience a mockingly accurate portrait of who these people are and lets everyone decide for themselves.
Our principals are known and respected names in local theatre, but the entire cast is new to the Old Creamery’s stage. Henke, as Amanda, is charming and complex, revealing this splendidly complicated character piece by piece with careful physicality, perfect inflection and a sometimes catty petulance that contrasts neatly with her grace and independent wild side. Van Valen, as Elyot, likewise wows, flippantly slinging verbal darts and quips, storming and raging in the climactic arguments, but also demonstrating the easy, gentle side of Elyot that Amanda loves so much. Both veteran actors bring a wealth of humor, motion, and passion into these characters, and the contrasts between their playful lovemaking and torrential arguments are displayed with an easy grace, using the small stage to its full power.
Playing on Coward’s theme of opposition throughout the show, Sybil and Victor are the polar opposites of Amanda and Elyot. Ernst and Hedlund’s portrayals of these two characters show us early on how Amanda and Elyot have run away from what hurt them. Victor, unlike Elyot, is protective, overly concerned with appearances, and Hedlund provides a huffy, stodgy British gentleman, at times overbearing and altogether too safe for an independent woman such as Amanda. Sybil, of course, is the ultimate lady of means, proper, prone to tears, and more than a bit melodramatic. Ernst embodies this with physical and emotional prowess, every move and inflection carefully suited to displaying the character’s too-conscious effort to maintain an air of propriety, even when propriety has fled the scene. As foils for Amanda and Elyot, and as characters in their own right, Hedlund and Ernst complete the picture of this story, giving us a window into its tricky and deliciously funny landscape. Through them, we see Amanda and Elyot more clearly. And through them, we also see inside our own tricky and deliciously funny landscapes.
Sean McCall, director of the show and the Artistic Director at Old Creamery, makes wonderful use of the space and script. Of particular note is the care taken with the divan in Acts II & III. Blocked and placed perfectly, the physically active scenes on the cramped little couch are splendid, intimate, and very funny. Other choices, such as the placement of identical drink orders, suitcases, and other props to mirror each other throughout the play, reveal a crafty directorial eye and a deep understanding of the thematic material.
Shelly A. Ford’s set design is clandestinely charming and detailed, making fantastic use of the Creamery’s Studio Stage. It displays a technical proficiency in such a small space, maximizing efficiency and lending a wonderful tone to the entire space. It is also beautifully detailed, including a “wrought iron” railing in the hotel scene, surrounding the half-moon shaped thrust stage, a mosaic floor and beautifully detailed doors which are cleverly set to coincide with the plays themes. In the talk-back with the actors afterward, Henke commented that the show is well suited to an intimate space, where the subtle choices of each actor are very obvious to the audience – and she’s right, of course. This is especially true for a production such as Private Lives, where we are invited to see inside the intimate and often humiliating and hurtful flaws of the characters and their choices, and also the beauty and rarity of love, with its glorious ups and its catastrophic downs. Ford’s design embraces this idea, and coaxes the viewer even closer into the world of the story.
At the end of this excellent production, each of us may or may not agree with the choices of the characters, but we understand, perhaps, a little more about that mysterious specter who shows up in so many of our lives. Maybe we understand a little more about ourselves, and why that fire - which this one person seems so uniquely skilled at igniting - is both terrifying and intoxicating. And how that one person can make us want to run and hide in a cave, and at the same time to sound our own roar and change the world with that singular soul at our side. What we do with that, of course, is up to us.
Old Creamery’s production of Private Lives is funny, affecting, and extremely well done. It runs Thursdays through Sundays through April 13, 2014. As with all O.C.’s Studio Stage productions, there is a voluntary talk-back with the cast after the show, which is always interesting and which I highly recommend as well.
See www.oldcreamery.com or call 319-62-AMANA for show and ticket details.