What They Did for Love! 

ROSALIND FRIEDMAN

Marsha Mason has blown into town and she’s turning the Westport Country Playhouse upside down!  In Somerset Maugham’s The Circle, written in 1921, the charming Mason plays Lady Catherine Champion-Cheney with charismatic flair. Nicknamed Kitty, 30 years before, she left her husband, Clive,  the indefatigable Paxton Whitehead, and her 5year old son, Arnold, for the love of her life, Lord Hue Porteous. Porteous’ wife wouldn’t give him a divorce, so they have been living and loving and traveling in sin ever since.  The scandal destroyed any chance of this distinguished man, best friend of Clive, depicted irascibly by John Horton, to be Prime Minister. Kitty has been shunned by the best, but carries on with true grit.

Arnold’s wife, the forthright Elizabeth, portrayed by the delightful Gretchen Hall, has invited Kitty and Hue to lunch; she’s dying to meet her mother-in-law, wants to reunite son and mother, and thinks Clive is still in France. He is not and joins the group.  Alexander Dodge’s exquisite set, a pale blue and white formal living room at Aston-Adey, Arnold Champion-Cheney’s house in Dorset, England, lit luminously by Philip Rosenberg, provides a framework for this elegant, entertaining production. Director Nicholas Martin has managed to combine surface brightness with the seriousness of the material so that this exploration of marriage, infidelity, and love in all its machinations, is a revelation: fun but never trivial.

Marc Vietor’s Arnold, a politician and prissy sort, is captivated by a new Sheraton chair he has purchased. While he continuously repositions the chair, other pieces of furniture, and bric-a-brac, his lovely wife, Elizabeth, the bubbly Gretchen Hall, falls in love with their house guest, Edward Luton, a part Bryce Pinkham give his passionate all to.  Luton admits he has no money, yet he is a good business man and wants Elizabeth to run away with him to his home in Malaysia. There are lots of references to parts of the world owned by English in those days: Australia and India are just two.    

Instead of just leaving a note as Kitty did, Elizabeth confronts her husband. He is terribly surprised and forbids her to flee without ever mentioning the word love. Meanwhile Kitty begs this young lover not to follow in her footsteps, listing all the hardships she will encounter. Arnold tries once again to convince his wife with his generous offers. However, Elizabeth is won over by Luton’s final argument.

Most touching are Kitty’s reflections on her own aging and her husband’s loving acceptance of the changes that age has brought. It resonated in the audience with anyone over the age of 60.  Gabriel Berry’s costumes are fine except for Kitty’s last one; that was quite bizarre.  The colors and material did not seem to match in any way.

The Circle –Pure Pleasure!  through June 25 at the Westport Country Playhouse.     

This review originally aired on WMNR Fine Arts Radio.

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