“The Winslow Boy" at Stratford Square One

By Brooks Appelbaum

The well-made play is a difficult form to tackle in this age of 90-minute, small cast scripts and audiences who are less and less patient with the gradual building of a plot.┬áThus, it’s refreshing to see that a theater -- in this case, Square One Theatre Company of Stratford -- has chosen to mount The Winslow Boy, written by Terence Rattigan in 1946, about events that take place between 1914-1918. The story, combining as it does the excitement of a court case with several sub-plots of domestic drama and moments of sharp humor, has much to recommend it. However, this production has a muffled feel in all respects, while the play itself requires exactly the reverse: a quick pace, passionate conviction, and performances that move just enough beyond realism to carry us into an age of ideals.

On the human level, The Winslow Boy has a fairly straightforward premise. Thirteen-year-old Ronnie Winslow (Sam Noccioli) has been expelled from the Royal Naval College for allegedly stealing a five-shilling postal order. He insists upon his innocence, and his father, Arthur Winslow (Bruce Murray) believes him. Arthur, along with Ronnie’s older sister, the unconventional suffragette, Catherine (Tess Brown), certain that such dishonor will follow him forever, are determined to clear Ronnie’s name. To that end, they employ Sir Robert Morton, the greatest barrister in England.

The larger issue surrounding this case -- which was based on a real cause celebre that set legal precedence -- has to do with the fact that Ronnie’s guilt was proclaimed by the Admiralty, and was thus considered an act of government. At this point in history, individuals could not challenge the government without the government’s own consent, so before an actual trial can determine guilt or innocence, the family must petition for the right to bring the case to court.

This complication prolongs the play’s action and thus adds to our experience of the painful toll this pursuit of justice takes upon each family member. I will not enumerate them here, but suffice it to say that the sacrifices are great enough to leave Arthur and Catherine, the leaders of the fight, questioning their own motives.

Because the plot concerns, in the main, ideas, idealism, and questions of politics and justice, it’s imperative that the director (Square One’s Artistic Director Tom Holehan) communicate to each of his actors an understanding of the high dramatic stakes, and the resulting need for a vibrant delivery. This play, like Oscar Wilde’s The Ideal Husband and A Woman of No Importance, requires great energy and a brisk pace. Unfortunately, most of the performances feel oddly becalmed. The actual dialogue is often difficult to hear, and except during moments of tenderness or affectionate enthusiasm, one senses that the cast members have not fully and emotionally connected with the script.

This is all the more frustrating because Holehan has cast well, and each actor shows marked potential: one feels that if the director had found a way to turn up the volume of their performances (and not just vocally), the production would spring to life. Two actors display the energy and verve required; unfortunately, they play relatively small roles. As Violet, the parlor maid, Lucy Babbitt is warm, lively, and humorous without caricature. Ryan Hendrickson has found every deliciously foppish note in Ronnie’s imperfect elder brother, Dickie, and is equally convincing when Dickie strives to hide disappointment or hurt. Sam Noccioli imbues young Ronnie with touching vulnerability: we believe in his innocence and are on his side from the moment he appears.

In the key roles of Ronnie’s elder sister Catherine and his father, Arthur, Tess Brown and Bruce Murray clearly understand their characters and certainly look just right, both in their period costumes (beautifully designed by Judy Keegan) and in their movements. Brown, in particular, blessed with large and expressive eyes, uses them to great effect. However, both of these characters must drive the action with extreme determination. This element is missing, and the production suffers as a result.

Similarly, Joseph Maker, as Sir Robert Morton, looks dashing enough and conveys an intellectual grasp of his role. However, Morton is a multi-layered, complicated man: Catherine describes him as politically ruthless and cold as a fish, and yet some of the plot’s interest lies in whether or not her assessment is accurate. Maker’s performance does not give us enough ruthlessness, coldness, or mystery, so director Holehan loses the full effect of some of the play’s most dramatic moments.

The drawing room set, designed by Greg Fairbanks and Robert Mastroni, is generally lovely, and the lighting (Clifford Fava) and sound (Don Henault) are serviceable. However, one wishes the actors had been schooled to hit the back wall of this relatively small house with their voices, which would negate the need for hanging microphones, and would also automatically bring the energy level up.

Altogether, one is left wondering what drew Square One Theatre to this particular piece. I applaud the company for choosing Rattigan’s somewhat dated and yet still interesting script, but I wish Holehan had communicated his enthusiasm for the play more effectively to the actors, and in doing so, to us.

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