It may have taken legendary American playwright A.R. Gurney (a.k.a. “Pete”) into his fifties to overcome critical and audience bias against his so-called “WASP culture” characters and storylines, but it won’t take any audience member of “Later Life”—one of Gurney’s masterpieces now playing at Portland Stage Company— more than a few minutes to appreciate the inherent humanity in his plays.
I found that out first hand less than an hour after the matinee, while enjoying a post-show Indian dinner on Congress St. The retired couple at the adjacent table also had been in attendance at “Later Life,” and not only adored the play, but openly speculated on what their lives might have been like had they not once taken a chance on each other.
For a critic, that’s like having a ringer on hand to prompt the audience. But this play at Portland Stage, directed by Cecil MacKinnon, was austere yet elegant, simple yet deep, funny yet pensive…and didn’t need the ringer.
Gurney takes us to a terrace apartment overlooking Boston Harbor. There, at a cocktail party, two members of the silver set, Austin (John Hadden) and Ruth (Rae C. Wright) are brought together by mutual friends–a nice senior fix-up of the upper class.
The two met before–decades earlier. Ruth remembers; Austin doesn’t. At least not right away.
They are joined all evening by different sets of Men (Ron Botting) and Women (Kate Udall) who make us laugh, think, and who are Gurney’s clever dualities in the script: quasi scene breaks, and self-deprecating WASP-culture pokes. They also help us see how other couples live, what they find acceptable, and the many different paths of love.
What follows is a journey through time, memory, emotions, and hope.
For fans of Booker-award winning novelist Julian Barnes, “The Sense of an Ending,” would come to mind: when you read the last page, you are left scurrying back to earlier key passages to find what you missed, or what the author tricked your mind into thinking you missed.
Except with a play, you can’t turn pages to check; instead, like my incidental dining companions, you must talk about what you just witnessed, and what it means to you–sometimes even with total strangers.
Almost all good theatre has this unifying effect, and “Later Life” doesn’t disappoint.
The actors, as we have come to expect at Portland Stage, were superb.
Botting and Udall would have stolen the show several times if their brief interjections and character changes lasted any longer from one to the next. They were both funny, timely, engaging and entertaining. Their caricatures alone were worth the price of admission.
But besides interjecting humor and relief, both Udall and Botting showed us different views of senior life, and how many choices, likes and dislikes the human condition carries with it.
As Ruth, Wright elegantly floated across the stage and into our sympathies just a easily as she sold us with an image we wanted to believe, unless forced to see otherwise. This, too, was Gurney’s script taken by a professional and enhanced beyond the pages.
Wright’s Ruth offered us hope, but how did she resolve it all? I can’t give it all away…
Hadden, a career Shakespearian to the bone, brought the best of the Bard’s characters to his rendition of Austin. Like Ruth, Hadden’s Austin teased us throughout the play’s duration while finding smooth, subtle ways to pull out the rug.
Did I say Hadden was smooth? He roundly convinced as a born and bred Boston blue blood, yet a man who clearly found, perhaps even knew all along, that something in his life might have been off-center.
The play moved along at a vibrant clip, and with no intermission, lasted a tidy 80 minutes.
Lights by Jason Fok and sound by Travis Joseph Wright were nicely applied in timely and aesthetic ways. Myles C. Hatch’s stage management acumen was on display with a tight, well-orchestrated production.
Anita Stewart’s costumes were brilliant, especially the touches and changes she made about every 10 minutes with the interjection of another set of Men and Women.
Stewart also tackled the show’s set, and her architect’s eye for detail and beauty yet again wowed us. Boston Harbor, of course is not that blue, but the surreal Aegean effect was perfect for the story, and beautiful to take in. The terrace was Spartan, yet edgy enough for the gathering, and events, taking place.
Ms. Stewart’s attention to detail even had a sailboat moving to and fro in the background. Alas, the one thing slightly missing, oddly, seemed to be lights in the Boston skyline.
So before publishing this I asked her about that, and verified that it was indeed a technical issue which would have led to excessive resources in making the lights work. And since no one in the industry is better at making world class sets on tight budgets than Ms. Stewart, I trust her call.
I love this play, but it’s difficult to explain fully in words because Portland Stage’s production is so simple on the surface, and yet so complex emotionally.
The story was about second chances, yes, but more importantly, about missed opportunities, and how different life turns out years later because of one evening, one decision, one phrase, one word.
The play, like W.H. Auden’s classic poem, “Lullaby,” seems to call out to have us all look deep in our past, and in our hearts, for what matters most: for taking a chance on love–or on anything, for that matter– and for a silent lament of what might have been:
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreadful cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.
You must go see this play. Then be ready to share a slice of your heart with your spouse, a friend, or maybe even a total stranger across the aisle from you at dinner.
“Later Life” runs through October 23 at Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave, Portland. Tickets and info call: 207-774-0465 or visit: http://www.portlandstage.org/
Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist, and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA).
Stage Names is the theatre review segment of From The Stacks.
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