Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June, 1999
It is a crime that the WTF can sell-out with a nothing-burger like “Factory Girls” and Oldcastle can fill barely half the house for their season opener “Later Life” by A. R. Gurney. Oldcastle is offering a considerably better show for the money, and Bennington is closer than you think.
Light comedy is something Oldcastle does very well, and they are doing very well indeed by this 1993 work of Gurney’s. A Williams graduate, Gurney is famous for his plays of upper-class American life and has won many awards for his work.
Oldcastle Artistic Director Eric Peterson has directed the cast of four actors on Kenneth Mooney’s gorgeous set depicting the terrace of a wharf converted to condos on Boston Harbor. Here Austin (Gary Allan Poe) and Ruth (Mary Frank Swaim) meet again after 30 years. Their previous meeting was a brief one on the Ilse of Capri when he was a sailor and she a student traveling with a group through Europe. Both have been married, both now find their lives changing as they enter later life, the question that remains is are they now ready for each other?
Poe is perfectly proper as the preppy and repressed Austin. And Swaim is charming and absolutely gorgeous in her costume by Jenny Fulton. Swaim has the gift of making her dialogue seem absolutely real and effortless. Her Ruth is three-dimensional and flawed as all humans are. That is takes Austin an entire evening to admit his attraction to her is almost unbelievable.
This mating dance takes place during a large and merry cocktail party, which spills out on to the terrace from time to time, dividing Austin and Ruth and providing some comic relief. All of the men are played by Richard Howe and all of the women by Christine Decker, both of whom do a splendid job of acting many roles in many wigs, costumes and make-ups. The one thing all the people at this gathering have in common, other than their friendship with hostess Sally, is their age. They are all 50-something and dealing in different ways with what that means for them and their lives.
Perhaps it is Gurney’s writing or perhaps Peterson’s direction, but the characters who drift out on to the terrace from the party are rather stark charicatures, as opposed to the realism of Austin, Ruth, and their attempt to reconnect. Luckily none of them are on for an extended period of time, so the stereotypes do not have a chance to become too annoying. Decker and Howe are so funny and charming in the various roles that it is hard to treat the characters they are given to play too harshly.
I said that Mooney’s set was beautiful, and it is. But it would be just a bunch of faux brickwork without the amazing sunset-to-twilight-to-moonlit-night lighting effects provided by Michael Giannitti. The sunlight fades, the moon and stars come out, and the sky deepens from light blue to navy to black with the same imperceptible combination of speed and slowness that mother nature provides.
“Later Life” runs through July 3 Oldcastle Theatre Company at the Bennington Center for the Arts at the junction of Route 9 and Gypsy Lane. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission. Call the box office at 802-447-0564 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999