“Time left its marks, but I’ve removed them,” exclaims the indomitable Mrs. Basil in Enid Bagnold’s play, A Matter Of Gravity. And the audience goes wild with applause because the lines are spoken by Katherine Hepburn, a pillar of polished longevity and amazing vivacity. With three Academy Awards and a recent Emmy to her credit, Hepburn is the first lady of the American entertainment world and one of the few movie stars left who can mesmerize an audience. At 66, she’s on stage again (six years after her last appearance on Broadway with the musical Coco) proving that she’s every inch the classy star and that her name on a marquee is a guarantee of box office gold. After her first month on tour with A Matter Of Gravity, the play had made back its $160,000 investment and by the time the production arrived at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra last month, on the last leg of its pre-Broadway run, it had broken the house records of every theatre it played in. Hepburn sails into New York this month to a house that is 80% sold out until April: while she agreed to perform at union scale ($375 a week plus expenses) until the play broke even, she is now getting a reasonable percentage of the box office and the show is financially insulated from the power of the New York critics.
Which, as it turns out, is a good thing: A Matter Of Gravity is a painfully old-fashioned drawing-room comedy. Mrs. Basil, the central character, is a charming but eccentric elderly widow living in the dilapidated splendor of her antique-smothered estate, blissfully isolated from the concerns
of the 20th century. Her home is staffed with refugees “from the lunatic fringe”; her cook is a fat alcoholic with lesbian tendencies. Defying the laws of gravity (the title is a pun) the cook has a consternating habit of floating up into the air (offstage only) from time to time. The modern world invades Mrs. Basil’s menagerie when her grandson comes visiting with a bizarre quartet of friends: a literary gentleman (Canadian actor Paul Harding); his boyfriend (a neurotic young man with a brush cut who is fresh out of prison); a frumpy, severe woman with a disdain for property; and her girl friend, a black girl from Trinidad. Eventually the grandson falls for the black girl, the disapproving woman is unmasked as a wealthy heiress, Mrs. Basil is forced to confront contemporary values and, by the third act, the prospect of her impending death. While Bagnold attempts to say something pertinent about the clash in standards between the generations, and to be meaningful about old-age and death, the result is an awkward play written in a stilted manner. With such lines as “I’ve been modern and I got tired of it,” A Matter Of Gravity caters to an audience that is eager for comfort and reassurance.
reassurance. Hepburn, who has a reputation for being very selective about the work she accepts, read the script of A Matter Of Gravity while filming Love Among The Ruins with Laurence Olivier in England. “I just couldn’t get it out of my mind,” she says. “It’s such an odd play and quite a departure for me.” Even at the first reading it must have been apparent that the role of Mrs. Basil would fit her like a glove. It allows Hepburn to display those qualities that have endeared her to the public for 40 years; the salty vitality, the clipped New England speech, aristocratic demeanor and chiseled patrician looks. A Matter Of Gravity is a star’s vehicle and she makes the most of it. It’s unfortunate that the public affection for Hepburn is being exploited with a creaky, second-rate play, but as one woman said to her husband after the Toronto opening, “She could read from the phone book for two hours and everyone would love it.” DAVID MCCAUGHNA
No more Mr. Nice Guy
BACK TO BEULAH by W. O. Mitchell
W. O. Mitchell’s first major stage play, Back To Beulah, which had its world stage premiere at Theatre Calgary in January, comes as a considerable shock. Most Canadians think of Mitchell (creator of the earthy Jake And The Kid radio and television series and author of the prairie novel Who Has Seen The Wind) as a kindly old uncle always ready to dandle us on his literary knee and tell warm, funny stories about growing up in the Canadian west. But Back To Beulah is a startling departure from Mitchell’s earlier work: the play is an intense cameo of the world of the halfmad, his characters people whose rationality hangs by a ragged thread.
The play, revised for Theatre Calgary after two widely acclaimed treatments on
radio and television, is set in the basement apartment of a halfway house for the exinmates of a mental institution (called Beulah) who are trying to return to a more normal life. The protagonists are three female patients and their psychiatrist, also a woman, and the action spans six days of a Christmas season. The patients revolt against the patronizing, humiliating treatment they have received by “kidnapping” •their psychiatrist and forcing her to undergo the same kinds of “therapy” they have been subjected to: the drugs, the condescending interviews, the physical restraints. While the play builds to its climax, the patients become less and less lovable as their neuroses gain increasing control over their behavior. In the third act it suddenly becomes apparent that this is not just a morality play about lovable kooks, but a stark, dramatic examination of psychosis. But unfortunately, Mitchell pulls back from the brink and the play plunges into bathos with an up-beat ending which very nearly destroys all the good work that has gone before. Mitchell is a fine craftsman who knows how to make an audience laugh, hold its attention and bring it to the threshold of a genuinely revelatory experience. But, on the evidence of this play, he appears to lack either the courage or the passion to cross that line. He gets our full attention and then recites homilies and platitudes.
If Back To Beulah had been written by
an unknown dramatist, it is doubtful that it would have received the full-blown treatment it has been given by Theatre Calgary. For while the play is less than overwhelming dramatic art, it is intelligently and sensitively acted by Helen Hughes, Maureen FitzGerald and Marrie Mumford, as the patients, and Samantha Langevin as the psychiatrist. Guy Sprung directs with a sure hand and an effective eye. The production is typical of the high quality of Theatre Calgary’s work. Under Harold Baldridge (now in his fourth year as artistic director) the company has presented everything from Brecht to Neil Simon but has a philosophical commitment to do at least one Canadian work each season. Baldridge landed Back To Beulah at the last minute: “W.O. brought it to me almost at the point where I was beginning to feel we wouldn’t find a worthy script for this season. The fact that he’s a resident Calgarian added another dimension to the work.” Like most of our regional theatres, Theatre Calgary suffers from the lack of wider exposure: its full and varied season should have earned it a much higher reputation outside Alberta than it now enjoys. But this month, in its first visit to the east, the company is presenting Back To Beulah at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre. While the Mitchell play itself may not be memorable, Theatre Calgary has turned Back To Beulah into a good showcase for its considerable talents. DAVID BILLINGTON
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