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'Autumn Garden' at Williamstown

Lillian Hellman tried to be kind and gentle with her characters in The Autumn Garden, but the judgmental personality which cast most of the people in her life as noblemen or scoundrels won out. There is a tone of summing up as each of the residents in a Gulf Coast boarding house attempts to find fulfillment with their unrealized lives. “Tennessee Williams did it so much better,” my theatergoing companion whispered to me after the production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival concluded. Williams had plenty in common with the lonely creatures populating his desperate Southland. Hellman lacked his sympathetic fellow feeling. That may be why this 1951 play is so rarely revived.

Fortunately director David Jones and his strong company imbue these souls with humor and a degree of self-knowledge despite their implicit self-deception. Allison Janney provides many shades of strength and sorrow as Constance, the owner of the boarding house reconciled to missing out on childhood dreams, but still yearning for them. Maryann Plunkett, a Tony winner for the musical Me and My Gal, uses giggles and smile to mask the sorrow of Rose Griggs, the aging ingénue whose girlish charm is fading. Jessica Hecht is blazingly intense as the most honest of the guests, Nina Denery, half of a Scott-and-Zelda-type couple who knows her unreliable husband all too well. Elizabeth Franz nearly steals the evening as the witty and all-knowing Mrs. Ellis, her function as the truth-teller elder is a little too obvious, but that is a flaw of Hellman’s script. But there are many fine performances in this production which closes Aug. 26.

--David Sheward

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