Weeping ‘Widow’: ‘Widowers’ Houses’ at Aurora Theatre

Widowers' Houses at Aurora - programme

“Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us.’ There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.”
– Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), arguing against the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”)

Say, did you know that during the 1950s the US government had a tax rate of 91% for richest citizens? Believe it. The prosperous post-WWII decade that everyone is so eager to get back to was as prosperous as it was because the richest 2% paid the lion’s share of taxes. That’s why we were able to have libraries, museums, public schools, public transportation, police, firefighters, and a shitload of money to fight a war with the Soviet Union in which not a single shot was fired. And keep in mind, this was the era of the “captains of industry”: the DuPonts, the Hiltons, the Rockefellers – all of them giving 91% from both their own pockets and their businesses… and they still lived like kings as their country thrived.

Imagine if the US went back to that American idea, rather than the ‘50s regressive social politics?

Sadly, as proven by the above quote and the frequently-bankrupt “businessman” in the White House, the latter has proven to be true. After many a great stride, the country is now at risk of falling back into the sort of greedy selfishness that led to the Great Depression (to say nothing of the economic crash of 2008). The modern rich are all too determined to horde their excesses for fear that sharing would mean to lose it all. In a time when we should be thriving, those with little grow in numbers as those with more continue to line their pockets.

We’re not supposed to need a George Bernard Shaw play in 2018, short of for curiosity’s sake. Progression alone should have made works like this akin to a Shakespeare play: a quaint relic of a time long gone, never to return. Having done both Shakespeare and Shaw, I can tell you that the reason their works persevere is because the problems those men wrote about are just as relevant now as they were then.

Widowers' Houses at Aurora - set

Set by Ken Dorsey. Photo by Me.

You can call Harry Trench many things – incorrigible, immature – but “rich” isn’t one of them. Living on a mere doctor’s salary, not even the airs put on by his society-climbing best friend Bill Cokan bring Trench any closer to being a man of high society. Nevertheless, he’s won the heart of the lovely Blanche, daughter of rich landowner Sartorius.

Sartorius’ wealth is maintained by cutting corners – sometimes literally – on the lower-income properties he owns. When Trench learns the details of his would-be-father-in-law’s business, he finds himself in a position where his romantic intentions conflict with his morals. He also finds that he may be just as complicit in the system he despises.

It’s amazing how electric the words of this play still are. Granted, much of the vernacular is now anachronistic and from another country, but the words themselves still ebb and flow from the lips of skilled linguists. And the story’s portrayal of the rich abuse of the poor – from the proverbial form of Sartorius and his tenants (as represented by Lickcheese) to the more explicit form of Blanche abusing the maid – both could have been ripped from contemporary headlines. And Sartorius’ revelation that Trench is a part of the very system he despises has lost none of its power. It’s easy to say you’re taking the moral high ground when you fail to closely examine your own actions.

Of all the things to change since this play was written, the elements of class struggle are not among them.

With such a rich text at hand, it makes some of the production choices all the more disappointing. Director Joy Carlin does well when sticking to the text of this stuffed-shirt society. But she seems intent on making explicit what was wonderfully subtle in the text. Both the waiter at the restaurant and the Satrorius’s maid (both played by Sarah Mitchell) are played as Laurel & Hardy-style pratfallers. Not only is this far too a joke in a comedy of manners, but it’s a great disservice to the maid – now she’s not someone with whom we sympathize, but just sidekick ready to take Blanche’s “hilarious” abuse; the Curly to Blanche’s Moe, if you will. Cutting Ball made the same mistake last year with their “slapstick” take on Hedda Gabler and Aurora fares no better with this production.

Similarly, the famously “erotic” third act scene between Blanche and Trench – made erotic by what they don’t do, not what they do – now comes off like the denied kiss scene from Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. It’s as if this production thought the audience wouldn’t understand unless points were explicitly hammered in. By doing so, it robs those great moments of their power. Add in some awkwardly-choreographed fights and one or two odd staging choices and the mistakes jump out you when everything else goes well.

Then there’s the cast. Megan Trout continues to be one of the Bay Area’s best talents, skillfully pulling off Blanche’s accent and her dual physicality (refined in public, aroused with Trench, violent with the maid) with seemingly little effort. It takes a lot of skill to be that good, and Trout has the skills. Similarly, Michael Gene Sullivan and Warren David Keith bring just the right amount of dignity and grace to their respective roles of Cokan and Sartorius. They don’t seem to have been directed to focus on the accents as much as Blanche, but speak the dialogue with the greatest of ease. I’m trying to think of when I’ve last seen Sullivan in a strong lead, but he always brings life to his supporting turns – sometimes unintentionally outshining his co-stars.

With Howard Swain clearly enjoying his turn as Lickcheese and Sarah Mitchell doing what she can with the waiter and maid, I can only beat around the bush for so long before I address the elephant in the room: Dan Hoyle as Trench. Hoyle is famous for his critically-acclaimed one-man shows Tings they Happen and The Real Americans. I never got a chance to see them, but have always heard great things. That doesn’t change the fact that he is woefully miscast here. Not only does he struggle with both the accent and dialogue – sometimes delivering it at barely-above-whisper-level – but his physicality for the role is all off. When he’s told of his complicity in Sartorius’ doings, Hoyle’s reaction is less heartbreaking shock and more trying-to-get-away-from-someone-who-farted. With such a talented cast making wise, believable choices in their roles, Hoyle sticks out like a sore thumb. That’s not a good thing to be when you’re playing the lead.

Whatever missteps made by cast or director (the latter simply being going for extremes in scenes that ask for nuance), the technical side of the production is a treat. Kent Dorsey’s set makes great use of seemingly limited space. At start, the vined fence and lawn setting of the eatery gives no hint of how seamlessly it will later transform into the Sartorius library (full of books its owner boasts of never reading). A large projection screen takes up most of the upstage wall, showing title cards, classical paintings, and even an economic PowerPoint presentation at the end. All well done.

Also well done was the atmosphere created by Dorsey’s lights and Chris Houston’s subtle sounds. All of Callie Floor’s costumes are gorgeous, but her work is most wonderfully apparent when one notes the stitched-up patches of Lickcheese’s “vagrant” clothing. As the one character of least means (at the start), his clothing says more of him personally than that of those better off than he. When his luck takes a turn later on, his specific choices also say a lot about him. An excellent showcase of costumer’s true function in a production. And no, I haven’t forgotten Baz Wegner’s fine props.

Given the recent vote of a horrible tax plan that favors only the wealthy, a play like Widowers’ Houses is the very sort of classic play one needs to put the modern world into context. Many of the choices in this production justify the decision to revive it at this time. However, a miscast lead and some contradictory directorial choices make for a show that has nearly as much going against it as for it. Its peaks are incredibly high, but its valleys go far too low to be forgotten or forgiven.

GRADE:                                        B-

Widowers’ Houses is scheduled to run until the 4th of March at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley.
The show runs roughly 2 ½ hours with two brief intermissions.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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