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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Chains of Dew
Orange Tree Theatre Spring 2008

Once again - and it happens so regularly one can't pretend to be surprised - this small but mighty suburban theatre has rediscovered a lost gem of a play and given it as fine a production as you could ask for, making the 20-minute train ride from Waterloo almost imperative.

In this case it is a produced but hitherto unpublished 1923 satiric comedy by the American writer Susan Glaspell.

(A bit of pedantry: Glaspell's plays of the teens and twenties were first done at the legendary Provincetown Playhouse alongside the earliest plays of Eugene O'Neill, and share with them a deceptively simple realistic surface beneath which a whole lot is going on. She is now best remembered, if at all, for a couple of her one-act plays, notably the near-perfect Trifles.)

In Chains of Dew a Midwestern American poet complains to his New York friends that he is trapped by the mores and social politics of his small town, by the obligations of caring for his wife and elderly mother, and by the mundane and soul-numbing work of business and church board.

But when they come to visit and to liberate him from this tiny world, they find something quite different. The poet's wife and mother are open to adventure and intellectual stimulation, and the demands and constrictions of village life are nowhere near as suffocating as he made them seem.

Like Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, he likes to think of himself as a would-be free spirit trapped in a world too small for him, when what is holding him is nothing more than his own conventionality and cowardice.

Will he - can he - be freed from his own limitations, or will the fresh air and hopes of change the visitors brought in have to be rejected, wife and mother sacrificing themselves to support his fantasy?

Glaspell works this puzzle out in a series of encounters and reversals of expectation that are witty in themselves and build toward a strong sense of irony and even outrage.

For yes, there is a feminist agenda to the play, apparent both on the surface and beneath it. One of the New Yorkers is a birth control campaigner, and the poet is shaken by how quick his wife is to join the movement and how willing she is to shock the neighbours, just as he is stunned by her impulsive decision to cut her hair into a daring bob.

But beyond that, few male writers of the period or since could have Glaspell's awareness of the games men's minds and vanities play, and of the ways women are forced into the role of supporting their self-delusions.

And a major strength of the play is that Glaspell's righteous anger only complements, and doesn't get in the way of the predominantly light comic tone.

Kate Saxon's direction captures all of this - the light social comedy, the ironies and the underlying anger - in a production that is a total pleasure to watch.

In a uniformly string cast I'll pick out David Annen as the man who doesn't have a clue who he really is, Kate McGuinness as the wife who would astonish him if he could actually see her, and Helen Ryan as the wise mother forced to preach a gospel of self-sacrifice in the name of love.

[NOTE: the run of Chains of Dew will be interrupted for two weeks, April 7-19, while some of the same actors appear in a programme of three Glaspell one-act plays, including Trifles.]

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Chains of Dew - Orange Tree 2008